'It's beyond an epidemic': Advocates talk impact of spike in drug overdoses in Minnesota

2020 has been a deadly year for drug overdoses. This week, the Minnesota Department of Health announced a 31-percent increase in drug overdoses in the state for the first six months of the year, compared to the same period in 2019.

"It's beyond an epidemic; it's a tragedy," said Dr. Tim Walsh with Minnesota Adult and Teen Challenge.

The preliminary data shows 490 deaths in the first part of 2020, compared to 373 in 2019 -- with an increase in March and a peak in May.

"Perhaps an increase was not unsurprising, just with how the trends have been going from previous years, but just the magnitude of that increase - just how big that was - that was surprising," said Nate Wright with the Minnesota Department of Health.

Deaths in all drug categories were up, but those involving synthetic opioids, including fentanyl, are where the most deaths were found.

"There’s something else going on here, and the something else going on here is that salting of these highly potent opioids, synthetic opioids into other drugs and then it’s done in such concentration that leads to overdose," explained Dr. Walsh.

While the state won’t draw direct connections with the higher overdose death totals to COVID-19 or stay at home orders, those who work with clients in recovery programs say the pandemic has made an ongoing epidemic worse.

"We think the pandemic aggravated the epidemic of these other mental health issues and the substance abuse disorders that people were already experiencing," said Dr. Walsh. "And people in recovery do horribly when they try to do this alone."

Minnesota Adult and Teen Challenge tells us they do have beds and space available to help and are also doing virtual appointments. The state also says they’ve been working closely with harm reduction services that hand out naloxone overdose kits and clean syringes.