ST. PAUL — Opioid overdose deaths fell in Minnesota between 2017 and 2018, early data show, potentially bending a nearly decade-long trend in painkiller-related deaths.

And for the first time, synthetic opioids like fentanyl were recorded as the cause of the most opioid-related overdose deaths over commonly prescribed opioids and methadone.

State health officials on Tuesday, July 9, released early data that depict the nearly 22% decrease in opioid-related deaths. Overdose deaths caused by heroin and prescribed opioids were down 23% and 32% respectively, according to the report. But synthetic opioid overdoses increased by 6% and nearly all of the synthetic-opioid related deaths involved the drug fentanyl.

Overall drug-overdose related deaths were also down from 733 deaths in 2017 to 603 deaths in 2018, a 17% decline, the data show.

The data isn't final, Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm said in a news release, but it seems to suggest that efforts to curb opioid addiction and to implement emergency overdose-reversing efforts are working.

“It’s encouraging to see this turn-around in the trend in 2018 as Minnesota has implemented a broad range of efforts to prevent opioid misuse and combat the overdose crisis,” Malcolm said. “This is good news, but we want to emphasize that this is still preliminary data and that overdose deaths continue to remain at historic highs. There is still much work that needs to be done to end this crisis and mitigate its effects.”

In the same timeframe, nonfatal emergency department visits for opioid-involved overdoses dropped slightly from 2,037 visits in 2017 to 1,946 in 2018.

In Minnesota, there were more than 3 million opioid prescriptions reported in 2017. The state has adopted opioid prescribing guidelines and announced that more than 16,000 health care providers in the state will receive reports comparing their rates of opioid prescription to others in their field. And the state's prescription drug monitoring program will issue alerts for patients that could be abusing the painkillers.

A broad opioid-response law passed this year will also limit, in some cases, the number of opioid painkillers that could be prescribed for acute pain to a seven-day supply for adults and a five-day supply for minors.

“Minnesota is working to end the opioid crisis by investing in a range of prevention, emergency response, treatment and recovery strategies,” Department of Human Services Commissioner Tony Lourey said in a news release. “The decrease we’re seeing in opioid deaths tells us our approach is the right one. We must continue to help those who are struggling with addiction and stop the damaging effects illicit opioid use has on people, families and communities.”

The Minnesota Department of Public Safety Bureau of Criminal Apprehension also got a $1.3 million a year boost to help fund investigations of heroin and other drug crimes. Department of Public Safety Commissioner John Harrington said law enforcement would also work with public health and safety experts to recognize trends in illicit opioid use.

“While law enforcement agencies across the state are working hard to disrupt the supply of this poison in our communities, we also need to find ways to reduce the demand by connecting people with the resource they need to break free of addiction," Harrington said in a news release.

The seven-county Twin Cities metro area again reported a higher number of overdose-related deaths than those reported in greater Minnesota, but that gap is closing, according to the report. Of the 603 drug overdose deaths in the state, 363 were reported in the metro area while 243 were reported in greater Minnesota.

Over the same timeframe, psychostimulant and methamphetamine-related overdose deaths remained relatively flat, the data show. There were 161 psychostimulant-related overdose deaths reported in 2018.

Benzodiazepine and cocaine-involved overdose deaths declined between 2017 and 2018 by 29% and 25% respectively.

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