Duluth Police Chief Mike Tusken got some welcome news last week when he learned the department would receive an $899,000 federal grant to step up its efforts to help people suffering from addiction.

He explained that the funds will allow the city to fill two new positions for the next three years, with the aim of getting people with drug addiction the help they need when they need it most.

"Currently, we have many people waiting 30 or more days to get the services they need," Tusken said. "When people are ready to make a change in their lives — they're ready to get healthy and well, and they've had enough of the cycle of substance abuse — they reach out for help, and we can't tell them that they have to wait another 30 days.

"As we know, relapse is very common. So, let's get people when they really are at a point where they're ready to move forward," he said.

"This will be a significant addition to our substance abuse response team," Lt. Jeff Kazel, commander of the Lake Superior Drug and Violent Crime Task Force, said.

Newsletter signup for email alerts

The Duluth Police Department will partner with the Center for Alcohol and Drug Treatment to hire a dedicated full-time licensed alcohol and drug counselor who will provide Rule 25 drug assessments within 24 hours. Such an assessment is required for people to access public funding for chemical dependency treatment.

"It doesn't happen overnight," Kazel said, explaining that's why the city already has been partnering with the center to help people make a smoother transition into programs that can help them break the cycle of addiction. The center already provides temporary assistance to people suffering through withdrawal until they can get into treatment.

Kazel said the latest federal grant will build on two previous ones, including funding for an opioid tech position in 2018 and a partner from the police department's diversion program in 2019.

"So, we built the framework to create a substance abuse response team with those two people, and now what this third grant is going to do is provide us with a licensed alcohol and drug counselor, who will be available for this team and an additional peer recovery specialist that will help out with the workload," he said.

Kazel agreed that connecting people with help quickly can be a key element of successful treatment.

"There are no absolutes when you're dealing with addiction," he said. "But if you are at rock bottom, and you realize that you finally want help, it just makes sense to have someone there who can say: 'If you want to go in a different direction, here are your options.' And there are a lot of people out there who are experiencing addiction but don't know what their other options are. They don't know the system and how to get help."

Kazel said overdoses have been running high this year.

"The number of overdose deaths we've had is way up, compared to what we had in 2019," he said.

He said the number of overdose deaths as of the third quarter of this year was already nearly equivalent to what the area experienced in all of 2019, noting: "We haven't gone through the fourth quarter yet, and that's usually the worst one for the year."

Through the third quarter, the city recorded 145 deaths related to opioid overdoses this year, compared with 159 in all of 2019. At the current pace, Duluth appears likely to record 193 opioid deaths by year's end — probably at least 20% more than the previous year.

RELATED: Read more about opioid overdoses

"With COVID, and people being shut in, it definitely has taken a toll," Kazel said. "Isolation is not good for somebody experiencing addiction."

The federal grants usually are announced in August but were delayed well into October this year, largely because of disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

While Kazel described feeling confident that Duluth had put forward a strong grant application, he acknowledged that as time dragged on without word, he did begin to wonder if grant funds would be forthcoming this year.

Kazel noted that the recent breakup of a major drug ring could lead to increased demands for services. A bust announced last week is believed to have stopped the flow of what had been $1 million worth of opioids, methamphetamine and cocaine this year alone.

"We put the message out there that we know this is a time when people who are suffering from addiction and are looking for drugs might reach out for help. And we're here to offer that through our substance abuse response team," he said.

This story was updated at 5 p.m. Oct. 28 with statistics on opioid deaths. It was originally posted at 2:40 p.m. Oct. 28.