As Twin Cities opioid overdoses surge, officials lean into drug prevention, education – Star Tribune

Christopher Burks moved to Minnesota years ago to find sobriety. For a long time, like many people recovering from drug addiction, he had trouble maintaining it.
Burks, 49, overdosed six times and relapsed many more over 25 years as he experimented with drugs like crack cocaine and methamphetamine. Things finally changed for the Ohio native, now a peer recovery specialist at the Twin Cities Recovery Project, when his granddaughter was born.
“Her mother asked me, ‘What is your grandbaby going to call you?’ because I was never around. Basically, ‘Are you even going to be a part of your granddaughter’s life?'” said Burks, measured and clear as he reminisces about painful memories. “I knew, right then and there, I needed to make a change.”
Barriers to sobriety often include the inability to secure a job and build a community of others fighting addiction — things Burks found by connecting to the Recovery Project. It’s a societal challenge more glaring than ever as a surge in opioid overdoses, driven by the powerful synthetic drug fentanyl, is killing residents in the Twin Cities at a rising rate.
Burks carries bottles of naloxone, a synthetic drug used to revive people overdosing on narcotics, everywhere he goes. He’s seen multiple people overdosing in the Twin Cities, and says that some members of the Twin Cities Recovery Project have used naloxone to save others.
A growing number of emergency workers now do the same.
In an Oct. 7 news release, Minneapolis officials said there have been 2,113 overdoses so far this year. At least 108 people have died from such overdoses. That’s compared to a total of 2,283 overdoses and 197 overdose deaths in 2021. A Minneapolis news release said the city is leaning into drug abuse prevention and education in response to the surge.

City data show drug overdoses in St. Paul — both fatal and nonfatal — have been gradually climbing the past handful of years, with police responding to more overdose calls than pre-pandemic and EMS administering more naloxone to people on opioids.
Driving this increase is a sevenfold jump in fentanyl overdoses, as tracked by St. Paul police.
By the end of last year, St. Paul police recorded more than 900 overdose incidents — about 150 more than in 2019, and 15% of which involved fentanyl as the suspected drug. This year’s totals are on pace to match last year, with nearly 20% of cases involving suspected fentanyl use.
Focusing just on fatal overdoses, the statistics are even more sobering: 77% of fatal drug overdose incidents in St. Paul were suspected to involve fentanyl in 2021 – up from 33% in 2019.
Downtown, Payne-Phalen and the North End have had the most drug overdose incidents since 2019. Incidents have also been common along University Avenue.
St. Paul Police Sgt. Justin Tiffany knows a lot about overdoses in the city. Tiffany works for the department’s Community Outreach and Stabilization Unit, a squad created in 2018 to connect people in crisis with the resources and care they need.
COAST is made up of four officers, three licensed social workers, one licensed drug and alcohol counselor and one research analyst who partner with other officers for community outreach and assistance.
There’s local investment in their work, but Tiffany says more support to improve access to addiction treatment could go a long way.
“You need this sort of engagement to interact with these folks to get them where they need to be,” Tiffany said. “If we don’t provide the necessary resources for services and funding, then I think unfortunately the number of fatal overdoses will continue to rise.”
That’s not the only challenge to preventing fatal overdoses. The Minnesota Department of Health said systemic racism has created wide disparities in overdose deaths, leaving Black residents three times more likely to die of opioid poisoning than their white counterparts.
Opioids continue to spread. A southern Minnesota drug seizure last month uncovered “rainbow” colored fentanyl that can look like candy, and a drug bust in Bloomington led police to recover 24 pounds of fentanyl pills — one of the largest fentanyl drug seizures in state history.
But Tiffany said that more people know about fentanyl and synthetic opioids than before, and that awareness is tearing down stigmas around drug dependency.
Alexas Leibel, a 26-year-old intern at the Twin Cities Recovery Project, said such stigmas are a huge barrier for people seeking treatment.
Leibel sought sobriety for years, and found a place to belong with Burks and others looking to change. She said social stigmas around drug abuse keep many people from admitting they are addicted. But accepting there’s a problem could make a difference.
“I don’t feel like it should be something to be ashamed of, because having an addiction is not easy … nobody wants to be dependent on this stuff,” Leibel said. “I come from a family of addiction as well, and I don’t think anybody in my family has gone this route. Had they, our family wouldn’t be as broken as it is today.”

Kyeland Jackson is the St. Paul public safety reporter for the Star Tribune.

Jeff Hargarten is a data journalist for the Star Tribune focusing on data-driven reporting and visualization. He has covered elections, technology, criminal justice, demographics and public health.
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