The rise in opioid overdose deaths slowed in 2017, but fentanyl deaths rocketed upward to a "crisis" level, according to preliminary data and statements by the Minnesota Department of Health.

On Monday, the MDH released early drug overdose data from 2017 to illustrate the danger of synthetic opioids.

There were some positives from this year’s data, said Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm. Overall, the number of overdose deaths in Minnesota rose slowly this year, compared to rates of increase in recent years.

Still, the number of opioid deaths for this year remains "historically high," Malcolm said.

The number of deaths from prescription opioids remained steady, and the number of deaths attributed to heroin alone dropped by 29 percent.

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That progress was outweighed, though, by the dramatic 74 percent increase in deaths attributed to synthetic fentanyl.

Emerging crisis

"The opioid epidemic in Minnesota has also become a fentanyl crisis," Malcolm said.

According to the preliminary data, which may change slightly before the final report in September, there were 694 drug overdose deaths in Minnesota in 2017. Of those, 172 were attributed to synthetic drugs, and of those, 156 (91 percent) listed fentanyl as a cause of death.

As fentanyl is relatively cheap, Malcolm said it’s likely that dealers cut other products with the deadly drug, putting substance users in more danger than they know.

In 2015, there were only 12 drug cases involving fentanyl in Minnesota, according to Drew Evans, the superintendent of the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension.

In 2017, there were about 9,000 such cases, he said. The state is on track for 9,700 cases in 2018. Accordingly, all officers in the field — and scientists in laboratories — have been equipped with naloxone, or Narcan, to use in case of accidental exposure or if they encounter an overdose.

"We do certainly believe … that people who are addicted to heroin or other substances are ingesting fentanyl without knowing it," Evans said.

New guidelines

Dr. Rahul Koranne, chief medical officer of the Minnesota Hospital Association, said he was pleased that hospitals are using Gov. Mark Dayton’s opioid guidelines to "curb the number of opioid prescriptions out there."

However, he said, those guidelines and subsequent efforts to cut down on prescription drugs in the pipeline will do nothing to solve the problem with synthetic street drugs.

Other findings:

— There were nearly twice as many deaths in the seven-county metro area versus greater Minnesota, according to the report.

— Cocaine-involved deaths increased by 36 percent in 2017, the first jump upward in 10 years. Psychostimulant-involved deaths continued to increase, but deaths attributed to benzodiazepines decreased by 17 percent.