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Suicide and overdose deaths increasing in Olmsted County

Medical examiner points to trends in the 2021 annual report.

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Chief Medical Examiner Ross Reichard presents his 2021 annual report to Olmsted County commissioners on Tuesday, Jan. 3, 2023, in board chambers of the city-county Government Center.
Randy Petersen / Post Bulletin
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ROCHESTER — Suicides in Olmsted County are rising.

“In 2022, we had more suicide deaths through quarter three than the entire year of 2021 or 2020,” Olmsted County Public Health Director Denise Daniels said Tuesday.

The statement followed the annual report from Chief Medical Examiner Ross Reichard, who told Olmsted County commissioners 24 suicides were documented in 2021, up from 2020.

The number, however, remained below a five-year peak of 34 in 2019.

Daniels and Reichard said tracking the numbers are important to identify potential trends and find ways to work with county partners to address them.

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According to information provided by Reichard, the county’s 2021 suicide rate matched the state average.

“This is really our most controversial manner of death classification,” he said, noting the medical examiners need to take many factors into account before making the ruling.

The medical examiner pointed out that a third of the suicide deaths that occurred in Olmsted County involved firearms, followed closely by seven deaths involving poison or drugs.

Daniels said such data is critical for addressing connected public health concerns.

“If we had to wait for data from (Minnesota) Vital Statistics on this, we would be sometimes two years behind,” she said.

In addition to the medical examiner’s records, the county is using information from local emergency departments.

“It gives us a real look at what is happening and what is going through our emergency departments,” Olmsted County Public Health Epidemiologist Meaghan Sherden said.

Daniels said the data, when combined with state statistics, was used to generate a report of causes of death between 2016 and 2020, which Olmsted County Public Health plans to release later this week.

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Olmsted County commissioners listen to the annual report from Chief Medical Examiner Ross Reichard on Tuesday, Jan. 3, 2023, in board chambers of the city-county Government Center.
Randy Petersen / Post Bulletin

That report, she said, is part of the ongoing effort to track causes of death among county residents, with special focus on suicides and overdoses.

Reichard reported Tuesday that Olmsted County saw the number of reported deaths from illegal drugs nearly double between 2020 and 2021, when the annual numbers went from 17 to 32.

What was seen in the last 12 months has yet to be officially documented.

“I don’t know offhand, but I think it has been increasing and that increase has been steady across the country,” he said.

He said medical examiners are seeing an increase in deaths tied to fentanyl, either on its own or combined with other drugs.

Fentanyl is really replacing heroin in many ways,” he said.

Of the 32 overdose deaths documented in 2021, eight were tied to fentanyl alone, with 18 deaths tied to when the drug was combined with methamphetamine, heroin or cocaine.

Daniels said the overdose data will help determine the best use for the anticipated $4.27 million Olmsted County is expected to receive throughout 18 years as part of a $26 billion multistate opioid settlement reached last year.

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Additionally, Olmsted County Sheriff Kevin Torgerson and County Attorney Mark Ostrem said the findings fuel efforts to find new approaches to addressing increased concerns related to illegal drugs.

Commissioner Dave Senjem, who joined the county board for his first meeting Tuesday, said he plans to push for more action to address the related issues.

“It seems to me that the city, the county, the school district and the citizenry really need to come together around this substance abuse thing and illegal drugs, and put a full-court press on it,” he said.

Randy Petersen joined the Post Bulletin in 2014 and became the local government reporter in 2017. An Elkton native, he's worked for a variety of Midwest papers as reporter, photographer and editor since graduating from Winona State University in 1996. Readers can reach Randy at 507-285-7709 or rpetersen@postbulletin.com.
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