Despite an aggressive effort to fight back, heroin and methamphetamine abuse remains a growing problem in St. Louis County, people in the front lines of the struggle said on Thursday.
"Matt (Johnson) and I did a presentation with someone from Minneapolis from the Drug Enforcement Agency," said Marcia Gurno of the St. Louis County Substance Abuse Prevention and Intervention Initiative. "And that agent told us that St. Louis County is considered ground zero for heroin. And I believe that northern St. Louis County is probably ground zero for methamphetamines."
Gurno, a social worker for 40 years, was leading a workshop along with her colleagues Johnson and newly hired public health educator Cristina Griffiths as part of the 33rd annual St. Louis County Health and Human Services Conference at the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center. Along with Jeff Polcher, who serves the northern part of the county, they make up the work force of the substance abuse initiative launched last year in response to what Gurno described as "a crisis in our community - especially the heroin, methamphetamine and synthetics."
The numbers the panel presented on Thursday seem to bear that out:
• 43 reported or known heroin overdoses occurred in the Duluth area so far this year, compared with eight in all of 2014 and eight in all of 2013. Overdoses of synthetics and of other drugs also have gone up considerably this year.
• In St. Louis County last year, 15.1 percent of treatment admissions were for heroin and 10.2 percent for other opiates and synthetic drugs - both higher than the statewide percentages of 10.6 percent and 7.2 percent, respectively. Methamphetamine admissions also were slightly higher here than in the rest of the state.
• In cases of children removed from their homes in St. Louis County, those cases citing parental drug abuse rose from 19 percent in 2009 to just over 75 percent in 2013. That year, only 12.5 percent were removed because of parental alcohol abuse.
The problem also is skewing toward a younger age group, Gurno told the audience of public health professionals.
"In 2010, when I interviewed adolescents ... they were telling me marijuana and alcohol," she said. "Heroin was taboo. ... Needles were taboo. And that's not true anymore. We have young people putting needles in their arms."
In an interview, Gurno said she had a referral this year for a 10-year-old who had used heroin through a needle.
She also has seen more referrals for pregnant women abusing substances, she said during the presentation.
"On a pretty regular basis, we're getting calls from our prenatal docs, from the hospitals,
relating to use among pregnant women - especially the opioid use," Gurno said.
Gurno traced the county's more aggressive response to a visit to Duluth in November 2012 by Lucinda Jesson, commissioner of the state Department of Human Services, in which she announced a statewide substance abuse strategy.
Inspired by that, four people - Mark Nelson from the county, Dr. Elisabeth Bilden from Essentia Health, Mark Schneiderhan of the University of Minnesota Duluth's College of Pharmacy and Gary Olson of the Centers for Alcohol and Drug Treatment - formed the Northeast Minnesota OARS, an acronym meaning Opioid Abuse Response Strategies.
That grew into a large team from government agencies, nonprofits, social workers, tribal officials, health officials and others, Gurno said. Their efforts led to the county's decision last year to fund the substance abuse initiative and the four full-time positions.
Their task has been training professionals who might encounter substance abusers in what Johnson said is an evidence-based process that emphasizes screening, intervention, treatment and referral, all done briefly and in a timely manner.
Seeing people as soon as possible is crucial, Gurno said.
"The state of Minnesota says ... we have to see them within four days," she said. "You know what my experience tells me? They aren't going to show up. Because in four days they could be dead. Or they could be too high to come."
The numbers seem to show that so far the initiative has failed to stem the tide. In an interview, Gurno said training only began this year, so it's too early to measure results.
She added: "The treatment admissions? That's good news, because it says people are in treatment."
She said she's also encouraged by the increased availability of Narcan, a drug that can reverse a heroin overdose. As well as being in the hands of more emergency responders than in the past, it's now available without a prescription at CVS Pharmacies in Minnesota and Wisconsin, she noted.
About the Health and Human Services Conference
The 33rd annual St. Louis County Health and Human Services Conference is the biggest yet.
Although exact numbers weren’t available, event chairwoman Mary Bridget Lawson said earlier this week she expected well over 2,600 people, counting attendees, about 300 presenters and vendors at 152 exhibits in Pioneer Hall for the two-day event, which ends today.
Last year, the total count was around 2,500, said Lawson, a staff development specialist for the county’s Health and Human Services Department.
Such an event packs the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center’s parking facilities. It also benefits motels, restaurants and other businesses, said Julie Johnson Atkinson, senior sales manager for Visit Duluth. She estimated the economic impact for Duluth at about $700,000.
The conference draws public health professionals from the Arrowhead region and from all over the state, Lawson said.
The conference is popular, she said, because of a long history of providing quality continuing education at an affordable price. The price is reasonable, she added, because all of the presenters donate their time - including one person, this year, from Connecticut.
Local treatment providers
In and near South St. Louis County:
- Center for Alcohol and Drug Treatment, (218) 723-8444 (detox, inpatient, outpatient)
- The Haven-Cloquet, (218) 879-5545 (outpatient)
- Mash-Ka-Wisen Treatment Center, (218) 879-6731 (inpatient)
- Minnesota Adult and Teen Challenge / Life Renewal, (218) 529-3733 (long-term residential, outpatient)
- Nystrom and Associates, (218) 722-4379 (outpatient)
- Genesis Recovery, (218) 722-2368 (outpatient)
- Tagwii Recovery Center, (218) 878-3877 (outpatient)
- Pioneer Recovery Center, (218) 879-6844 (inpatient)
- Duluth Bethel Port Rehab, (218) 722-1724 (inpatient); (218) 727-0504 (outpatient)
- The Superior Treatment Center, (218) 336-9300 (outpatient)
In and near North St. Louis County
- Range Mental Health Treatment Center, (218) 741-9120 (detox, inpatient, outpatient)
- Arrowhead Center Inc., (218) 749-2877 (outpatient)
- Northland Recovery Center (Itasca County), (218) 327-1105 (detox, inpatient, outpatient)
- Mid-Range Chemical Dependency Services, (218) 262-0860 (outpatient)
The St. Louis County Chemical Dependency Unit
- Jeff Polcher, Hibbing: email@example.com, (218) 262-6045
- Marcia Gurno, Duluth: firstname.lastname@example.org, (218) 726-2169
- Matthew Johnson, Duluth: JohnsonM8@stlouiscountymn.gov, (218) 726-2294
Source: St. Louis County Health and Human Services