ST. PAUL -- The year 2020 was tough on Minnesotans psychologically, and the health department has the data to prove it.

Preventable deaths by drug overdose increased 27% in 2020. The Minnesota Department of Health reported 1,008 deaths from overdose in 2020 as compared to 792 in 2019.

“Minnesota families are struggling, and the overdose deaths in 2020 are a terrible reminder that those struggles can result in preventable deaths,” Minnesota Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm said.

Numbers reflect national trend

The news is a blow for health leaders who saw the overdose deaths drop in 2018, a change attributed to robust prevention programs. But the dip down to 636 overdose deaths proved temporary as the numbers began to climb again in 2019 and were exacerbated by the pandemic in 2020.

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The crisis in Minnesota is consistent with the national picture.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported over 81,000 drug overdose deaths in 2020, the highest number ever recorded in a 12-month period.

How much did the pandemic contribute to the problem? Health officials say it’s hard to tell.

“We can’t speculate on how much COVID played a role in these OD deaths, but given the additional stressors that COVID brought into homes – job loss, economic issues, isolation – it likely played a role,” said Julie Bartkey, spokesperson for MDH.

A data comparison to historical events provides context for the numbers, but not necessarily a cause.

In March 2020, when Gov. Tim Walz issued the state’s first stay-at-home order, 87 Minnesotans overdosed on drugs — a 67% increase from 2019.

The deaths spiked again in May. Minnesotans had been in lockdown for about three months, college students had been sent home and riots broke out following the murder of George Floyd.

Nothing specific was happening in August when overdose deaths spiked again, but there were several protests going on nationwide leading up to the contentious November presidential election.

Isolation didn’t help

Isolation due to COVID could have been a contributing factor, not just because of the psychological impact, but because it delayed medical care.

“In order to administer naloxone, also known as Narcan, there needs to be a person to do the administering,” Bartkey said. “If someone were using alone and overdosed, there would not be help on site.”

Rehab centers reported initial difficulties with isolation causing sobriety relapses.

“Treatment and successful recovery is about developing a network of support,” said Dana Farley, Alcohol and Drug Prevention Policy Director with MDH. “Most treatment groups and recovery support groups have been able to adapt to provide virtual services and support.”

By the numbers

A breakdown of the data shows fentanyl, a powerful synthetic opioid, is still a main contributor to overdose deaths.

  • 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.

MDH data shows the overdose problem is statewide, but worse in the seven-county metro area.

  • In the Metro, overdose deaths increased 40%, from 483 to 673.

  • In Greater Minnesota, overdose deaths increased 21%, from 276 to 335.

There were increases in overdoses across all age groups, but the 25- to 34-year-olds struggled the most. Deaths in that age range increased 57%, from 175 to 274.

“The last year has been incredibly challenging and demonstrates the need for increased public health measures,” Farley said. “Prevention tools such as access to naloxone, linkages to care and overdose fatality reviews improve our understanding of why people are using drugs and lead to recovery and saved lives.”

MDH in April launched a podcast called “Stories from the Field” aimed at addressing the opioid epidemic. The podcast hosts experts in the healthcare field and community leaders. It also features interviews with those who’ve battled substance abuse and survived.

A list of recovery resources can be found on the University of Minnesota website.