In 2018, when health officials saw a drop in overdose deaths, they attributed the change to prevention programs. But the good news didn't last. The numbers rose in 2019, and the pandemic of 2020 laid waste to any dreams of turning the corner.

Deaths by drug overdose in Minnesota climbed 27% in 2020, from 792 in 2019 to 1,008 in 2020.

The national numbers show a similar trend. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported more than 81,000 drug overdose deaths in 2020, the most ever recorded in a 12-month period.

Health officials are reluctant to create a hard tie between the rising number of overdose deaths and the coronavirus pandemic, but the empirical data seems pretty clear.

"Given the additional stressors that COVID brought into homes – job loss, economic issues, isolation – it likely played a role," said Julie Bartkey, a spokeswoman for Minnesota Department of Health.

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Isolation no doubt played a role, both for its psychological factor and for the damage it wreaked upon critical support networks. After all, it's tough to go to a group support meeting when everyone is supposed to stay home. Rehab centers reported initial difficulties with isolation causing sobriety relapses.

Fentanyl tops the list

Fentanyl, a powerful synthetic opioid, was a main contributor to Minnesota overdose deaths in 2019 and 2020:

  • Deaths involving fentanyl increased 81%, from 298 to 539.

  • Deaths involving methamphetamines increased 44%, from 229 to 329.

  • Deaths involving commonly prescribed opioids, such as Vicodin, Percocet, morphine and methadone increased 53%, from 135 to 207.

  • Deaths involving benzodiazepines (tranquilizers) increased 70%, from 83 to 141.

  • Deaths involving heroin increased 15%, from 102 to 117.

  • Deaths involving cocaine increased 41%, from 58 to 82.

Most recovery support groups were quick to adapt to virtual services during the pandemic, but you can't administer naloxone to a friend in trouble over Zoom. Fentanyl has proven frighteningly fatal, and presents a particular challenge to health professionals and government.

The fight against illicit drugs, especially opioids and their synthetic counterparts, is one we can't afford to ignore.

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