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County partners with state on opioid work

Parts of St. Louis County could be getting respite from the opioid crisis in the coming months.

An opioid prevention strategy that tackles the epidemic in rural parts of the county will be rolled out in collaboration with the Minnesota Department of Health and healthcare partners around the area.

"Public health strives to get at the root causes of what might be causing a health crisis in our community," said Joshua Gorham, the program's coordinator. "In this case, we're looking at why opioids have become such a problem over the last decade across our country, and our state and our county."

St. Louis County was one of two counties — along with Wright County — chosen to participate in the yearlong pilot program. To promote opioid prevention, the program will focus on three things:

• Partnering with community healthcare providers to establish best practices of prescribing opioids.

• Decreasing the supply of opioid medications circulating in the community through disposal programs.

• Using a harm-reduction model the county has used in the past.

The county is connecting with community partners like Essentia Health, area pharmacies and the sheriff's office. This isn't the first time it has tried to address the area's opioid epidemic. In 2014, it put together a team of social workers and public health educators to help understand a range of substance abuse, including opioid abuse. That first program helped lay the groundwork for the current pilot program.

The substance abuse work was good experience for staff working on the opioid program, said Jana Blomberg, the public health educator for the county.

The Minnesota Department of Health reports that heroin and opioid drug overdose deaths in St. Louis County increased 108 percent between 2011 and 2015, placing the county third-highest in the state for opioid deaths.

St. Louis County was also chosen because of its many rural communities hit by the epidemic. Gorham says cities often have more resources to deal with drug abuse problems, so this is a chance to focus on people with less access to help.

"We tend to have a lot more resources in the urban area, whereas in rural St. Louis County we don't have as many resources and not as much capacity," Gorham said. "That was a big driving force."

The state was also looking for diversity, and the majority of St. Louis County contrasted well with the more populous Wright county.

St. Louis County won't receive any more money for being part of the program, but it looks forward to having the ear of health experts at the state level who will offer advice and feedback, Gorham said.