It’s too early to think about victory in the war against opioids, one of the leaders in the fight in Minnesota said Monday.
“It’s a myth that this is getting better,” said Colleen Ronnei, founder and executive director of Change the Outcome, an organization that works with schools to inform students about the dangers of opioids and other drugs. “But it will get better.”
Ronnei was a panelist during a community event on opioids at Clyde Iron Works sponsored by the Essentia Health Institute of Rural Health. She was speaking about the good news earlier this year from the Minnesota Department of Health, based on preliminary numbers, that the number of drug overdose deaths in the state had dropped 17% from 733 to 2017 to 607 in 2018.
Holding a box containing the opioid-reversal drug Narcan, Ronnei said the increasing availability of the drug means more lives are being saved but not necessarily that the crisis itself is diminishing.
“Had we had Narcan in our house the day that Luke overdosed, he might still be here,” she said.
Ronnei was talking about her son, Luke, who died of an accidental overdose at age 20. A year and a half later, she founded Change the Outcome, which brings young adults who are in recovery to schools to tell their stories. Two of the people on her team had spoken at Duluth East High School on Monday, and two more will speak at Denfeld Tuesday.
Among them is Chelsea Thompson, 31, of Minneapolis who said she started using drugs recreationally at age 14, started using opiates at age 24, was addicted to heroin and methamphetamines for three or four years and almost died from an overdose on Aug. 28, 2017.
“I realized I was going to lose my life if I didn’t make some serious changes,” she said. “So I made the decision to get clean.”
Having successfully gone through treatment and a stay in a sober house, Thompson said she’s eager to share what she learned with younger people.
“That’s where my struggle started was with mental health, self-harm, so talking to the kids about anything like that … I try to do as much outreach as possible,” she said.
Panelists on Monday shared a mixture of positive results and continuing need with their audience.
Gary Olson, retired CEO of the Center for Alcohol and Drug Treatment, offered a litany of successful steps that have been taken since he and others formed OARS (Opioid Abuse Response Strategies) in 2013.
He mentioned the county jail as one place where work still is needed.
“We’ve had several instances, I think, in the last month of people coming out of jail, that were being treated but left jail without medication, came out and overdosed,” Olson said. “That’s unacceptable.”
But 6th Judicial District Judge Shaun Floerke spoke of the promise provided by the medically assisted treatment grant that was obtained earlier this year for the county jail and the Northeast Regional Corrections Center.
“We are looking to create a bridge clinic … where we connect people from the facilities to treatment and ongoing medication,” Floerke said. “We’re talking about a ‘hot handoff’ where somebody will actually meet you in the facility, establish relationships … take you to that first meeting with the outside treatment provider.”
St. Louis County was one of only 15 counties in the nation to qualify for the grant, said Dr. Lisa Prusak, associate director of the Duluth Family Medicine Residency Program and another one of the panelists.