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Police, ERs report overdose uptick

An uptick in opioid drug overdoses in Duluth over the weekend means "there is probably a new shipment in town," a local emergency medicine physician said.

Heroin
HEROIN0518c14 -- A syringe lays in the rubble along Tower Avenue in Superior while construction was still going on this past summer. (Jed Carlson/jcarlson@superiortelegram.com)

An uptick in opioid drug overdoses in Duluth over the weekend means "there is probably a new shipment in town," a local emergency medicine physician said.

"A patient told me he's not a new user of heroin," said Dr. Gary Foley, of the Essentia Health-St. Mary's Medical Center emergency department. "He thought he shot up with a relatively small amount, and he collapsed."

Duluth police reported on Monday that they had responded to six overdoses involving opioids - which include prescription pain pills such as oxycodone and street drugs such as heroin - since Thanksgiving Day.

Although no deaths were reported, police said in a news release they're concerned for opioid users and warned of the risk of using the drugs because their content and purity is often unknown and can lead to overdose deaths.

Opioid abuse in recent years has been at a crisis level in the Northland and across the country. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that more people died from drug overdoses in 2014 than any year on record, and that six out of 10 overdoses involve an opioid.

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In Minnesota, 572 people died from drug overdoses last year, up by 11 percent from 2014, the state health department reported. Duluth police reported arresting 29 people on heroin charges during the first quarter of this year, compared with nine during the same time period last year.

Two of the patients Foley treated for drug overdoses over the weekend were admitted to the hospital, and one went to the intensive care unit, he said.

The St. Luke's hospital emergency room also noted "a significant increase" in the number of overdoses over the weekend, said Dr. Shawn Brown, an emergency medicine physician there.

"We sort of expect that around the holidays," Brown said.

Maggie Kazel, syringe exchange manager for the Rural AIDS Action Network's Duluth office, agreed.

"I think that it's not coincidental that there are six overdoses over a major American holiday," Kazel said. "People have a hard time at the holidays."

In almost every case, opioid victims arriving at the emergency room already have been treated with Narcan, Foley said. Narcan, which now is carried by police and firefighters in Duluth and elsewhere, is a drug that reverses the effects of an opioid overdose.

"Our hope is simply to keep people alive," Kazel said of Narcan, which also is distributed through RAAN. "It's an emergency Band-Aid."

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Kazel has seen a rise in the number of overdoses over the past two months, she said, attributing that to the arrival of batches of heroin that also include fentanyl, a powerful synthetic opioid.

She realized fentanyl-laced heroin had reached the local market, Kazel said, when a woman told Kazel that the woman's husband had overdosed four times in the same day.

A relatively new concern, Brown said, is heroin that contains carfentanil, a more potent variation of fentanyl that is used to tranquilize elephants.

Carfentanil has been linked to deaths in Ohio, Michigan, Indiana and West Virginia, USA Today reported last month.

Kazel is aware of the danger of carfentanil. "Less than a grain of it can kill a person," she said.

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