Bags of heroin, some laced with fentanyl, are displayed before a press conference regarding a major drug bust. Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images.
New data recently released by the state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension underscores how the COVID-19 pandemic and the social disruption it wrought led to an immediate uptick in fatal overdoses in Minnesota.
Monthly fatal overdose numbers were remarkably consistent throughout 2019 and into the first two months of 2020, the data show. But in March of that year, when many workplaces, schools and other institutions began to shut down in response to the onset of the pandemic, overdose deaths rose by close to 40%.
They’ve been trending upward ever since, even as other pandemic-era disruptions, like a spike in violent crime, have begun to subside.
The data come from the BCA’s Drug Crimes and Overdose Dashboard, which the agency released last month in the hopes of fostering better understanding of drug use and its effects. In addition to fatal overdoses, the dashboard contains data on drug-related arrests, as well as on non-fatal overdoses for which first responders administered Narcan.
The non-fatal overdoses, in particular, follow a distinct seasonal pattern: They’re higher in the late summer months, and lower in the heart of winter. They’ve been trending upward since the start of the pandemic too.
In any given month there are roughly three to four times as many non-fatal overdoses treated with Narcan as fatal events. That suggests that absent the widespread availability of Narcan, fatal overdose cases would be even more common in Minnesota. But the relentless upward march of drug fatalities underscores the difficulties in getting life-saving medications to the people who need them in their moments of crisis.
Not all overdoses are treatable with Narcan, which is only effective against opioids. Methamphetamine is also a key driver of the overdose crisis, accounting for more than 500 deaths across the state in 2022. That number has more than doubled since 2019.
As we noted earlier this week, the data show that overdose deaths (adjusted for population) are concentrated in the northeast quadrant of the state, as well as in Hennepin and Ramsey counties. But the highest rates of death are seen in Mahnomen County in the northwest, home of the White Earth reservation.
The reservation’s struggles with heavy drug use predate the pandemic and are exacerbated by endemic poverty and a legacy of mistreatment by state and federal authorities that goes back centuries. Minnesota’s racial disparities on drug use are among the worst in the nation, with Black and Indigenous Minnesotans dying at rates well above their white counterparts.
Mahnomen County, along with similarly situated counties in the northern part of the state, is Minnesota’s ground zero for those disparities. The indigenous make up less than half the total population of the county, but account for more than 90% of the overdose fatalities there since 2019. In neighboring Clearwater County, Native Minnesotans are less than 10% of the population but account for fully half of lethal overdoses.
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