High demand for xylazine test strips in Ramsey County as public health officials work to stave off ‘crisis’
Ramsey County Public Health on Wednesday reported strides made in the last six months to educate people who have become entangled with an emerging dangerous drug known as xylazine — many of whom didn’t know the drug they meant to take was cut with it.
5 INVESTIGATES first reported about the horse tranquilizer that is primarily mixed into fentanyl early in 2023.
Test strips were the new resource since mid-2023 at the center of the conversation.
Testing illicit drugs to better know what’s in them is far from a new concept, but test strips made specifically to find out if a drug was cut with xylazine is a relatively recent innovation.
“A very small amount of the substances can be put in the water and then tested with the strip,” said health educator Ryan Rasmussen with Ramsey County Public Health’s Opioid Response Initiative, as he held up the cap from a disposable water bottle to demonstrate the little amount of water — and substance needed for a result.
Rasmussen, who is in recovery from opioid use and nearly 11 years sober, was joined by Jennifer Turner, a nurse with Ramsey County Public Health’s Correctional Health Unit. She works with people who are incarcerated and have substance use disorders.
“Probably on a weekly basis, I’m seeing xylazine users,” she said, adding that she often discerns the drug was ingested by gruesome, gaping skin wounds that have become synonymous with xylazine.
“We’re seeing wounds with even a couple of uses,” Turner added — something she and fellow nurses have recently learned to treat “a lot like we would treat burns.”
As is common with illicit drugs, xylazine’s prevalence in the community is tough to gauge, but doing outreach in county correctional facilities has helped.
“If we talk about the powder form of fentanyl, we think maybe 20% on the street has xylazine in it, and the pill form, maybe 10%,” Rasmussen estimated. “So if it starts to get much worse, we will have a crisis.”
Turner said she first learned of the drug “probably a year ago” after hearing about the crisis that developed in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
The burgeoning trend took 5 INVESTIGATES to the Kensington neighborhood last May. The community about 20 minutes north of downtown Philadelphia is considered by many to be ground zero for the explosion of xylazine into the illicit drug supply.
Experts there reported that anyone using fentanyl in the town is most likely also using xylazine.
“Is Minnesota going to become that?” Rasmussen mused, adding, “I think we need to talk about it.”
“If I had to guess, it’s 40% are aware that they’re ingesting it,” Rasmussen said, asked if people he encounters know their fentanyl was cut with xylazine.
Turner said she’s also been concerned to discover that a “good portion” of her patients “do not know what’s in their drugs,” which is at the crux of the purpose behind the test strips.
“You think you’re taking one thing, and you’ve got other substances on board that are going to compound the effects of fentanyl…which is going to increase your risk for overdose,” she added.
Ramsey County Public Health reported it has given out 2,700 xylazine-detecting test strips from its mobile Clinic 555 since first getting them in mid-2023.
Another health educator who works for the Syringe Services Program aboard Clinic 555 told 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS late last year that roughly 75% of people who come in on his shifts specifically request the xylazine test strips.
“Yeah, I think those are perfect numbers. I think what he reported to you is the norm,” Rasmussen reacted.
He also emphasized that although naloxone nasal spray (commonly known by the brand name, Narcan) is not effective in reversing a xylazine overdose since it’s not an opioid, he still highly recommends that people use it because “xylazine is typically paired with fentanyl.”
“We also want to encourage people to call 911 and get EMS if it is a xylazine overdose. We want medical professionals on scene to deal with it,” he continued.
Rasmussen also does Narcan training for both county employees and the public.
You can watch his demonstration and explanation of resources with the Ramsey County Opioid Response Initiative in the video below.