‘Seconds count in an overdose.’ MDH says opioid overdose deaths in the state are leveling off, with the availability of naloxone

Department of Health sees plateau in overdoses

Department of Health sees plateau in overdoses

Abi Rutgerson says she’s lucky to be alive, after a fentanyl overdose in May.

“I started to feel high. All of a sudden, boom, I’m waking up in the hospital, panicked, like what’s going on,” the 21-year-old recalls. “My face started turning purple and my lips started turning purple and that’s where they hit me the first Narcan.”

Rutgerson, from Rochester, says responding officers gave her a dose of Narcan, a brand name for naloxone— a medication used to reverse or reduce the effects of opioids.

She says in the hospital, doctors gave her up to eight more doses before she was considered out of danger.

“It did save my life, absolutely,” Rutgerson declares. “I would not be here without it.”

She’s not alone.

Preliminary data from the Minnesota Department of Health shows the number of opioid overdose deaths has nearly leveled off for the first time since 2018.

MDH says in 2021, there were 977 deaths— the next year, 1002.

The agency says those fatal overdoses were driven primarily by fentanyl— and that widespread use of naloxone is a ‘key response’ to the reduction in deaths.

“I’m hoping this will be the start of a downward trend,” says Mary DeLaquil, an MDH Epidemiologist. “It seems reasonable to think that the wider availability and just the information that the public has about naloxone is contributing to it.”

In September, the Health Department began distributing nearly 16,000 doses to schools, law enforcement officials, emergency responders, and residential treatment programs for free.

The Department of Education says there are to be two naloxone kits in every public school statewide.

MDH says any facility that needs replacements can request them.

“Minutes, seconds count in an overdose, and so in a medical emergency, time matters,” explains Dana Farley, the supervisor of MDH’s Overdose Prevention Unit. “Schools, Corrections, law enforcement, housing, sober homes, you want to have quick access.”

Dan Gustafson— the Treatment Director at Minnesota Adult and Teen Challenge— says having naloxone widely available is a lifesaver.

“We would have so many more overdose deaths if it wasn’t for naloxone,” he notes. “There’s no question about it.”

Still— he worries the opioid blocker might give some users a false sense of security.

“Sometime the users will use it, and think as long as they have naloxone around, they’re going to be okay, as long as you have someone else around to administer it,” Gustafson says. “The reality is that fentanyl is so powerful that sometimes naloxone doesn’t override it, or it might take multiple administrations of it. So, it’s an absolute blessing, but there is a downside.”

Minnesota Adult and Teen Challenge says twenty-two of its seventy clients are being treated for severe fentanyl use disorder.

Rutgerson— who’s in recovery there— says she’s been drug free for four months now— and she’s considering helping others with addiction counseling.

She believes naloxone is giving her— and others, hope.

“The happiest I’ve ever felt, I’ve been the healthiest I’ve ever felt, so I’m extremely grateful,” she says. “We’re not going to be able to stop the spread of addiction, but we can save lives by people having this.”