When St. Louis County residents were asked in a survey earlier this year to rate various potential health issues, their responses show the top two health concerns are illegal drug use, followed by abuse of prescribed medications.

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Drug use and abuse of prescriptions are indeed problems, and combatting people's addictions is a focus for multiple county departments. People are dying from overdoses and families are being torn apart. The foster care system is strained by a record number of children needing out-of-home placements for longer periods of time than ever as their parents battle addictions.

The Public Health and Human Services Department confronts this issue through a team of prevention and intervention social workers, as well as a public health educator. They work directly with clients on using a process known as SBIRT: Screening, Brief Intervention, Referral to Treatment.

SBIRT is a public health approach to giving early intervention and treatment services for people with substance use disorders and those at risk of developing these disorders. The team also provides education and training to schools, employers and health care professionals.

PHHS staff from Adult Services and Public Health are also part of a work group that brings together the expertise and perspective of a variety of professionals including medical and pharmaceutical, law enforcement and chemical dependency. The Opioid Abuse Response Strategies (OARS) group has focused their efforts on topics such as referral strategies, detoxification, recovery, methadone programs, prescription drug monitoring and naloxone rescue.

Naloxone is more commonly known as Nasal Narcan. Narcan is an easy-to-administer nasal spray that temporarily reverses the effects of opioids. Opioids include both legal prescription painkillers such as Vicodin, OxyContin and Percocet as well as the illegal drug heroin.

St. Louis County sheriff's deputies in the patrol division have been carrying emergency Narcan kits in their squads since April, and recently used it successfully to save a man in Brevator Township who'd been found unresponsive after overdosing on heroin.

"Heroin and opioid overdose have become a regional public health crisis," said Dave Phillips, St. Louis County undersheriff. "In order to save lives, first responders need the ability to quickly reverse the effects of overdose. Narcan is simple to use, extremely effective, and fast acting."

The Sheriff's Office also is actively involved in fighting the supply side of the drug problem, with investigators assigned to both the Lake Superior Drug and Violent Crimes Task Force based in Duluth, and the Boundary Waters Drug and Violent Crimes Task Force on the Iron Range.

Meanwhile, the St. Louis County Attorney's Office is addressing the opioid/heroin epidemic on multiple fronts. County Attorney Mark Rubin has been able to meet with Sen. Amy Klobuchar who is addressing the issue in the Senate and supporting our local efforts. He also frequently meets with community groups to bring this issue to the attention of residents.

"Our prosecutors are working with Andy Lugar, the U.S. Attorney for Minnesota, and our phenomenal law enforcement partners, aggressively charging and holding drug dealers accountable as we seek significant prison sentences when dealers are convicted," Rubin said. "For lower-level possession offenders, we participate in and support an effective Drug Court headed up by Judge David Johnson. Offenders are held accountable while at the same time, required to participate in treatment programs."

Attorneys assigned as counsel for Public Health and Human Services have never been busier working with social workers to address increasing instances of child neglect and maltreatment, a devastating collateral effect of drug abuse.

Opioid addiction is powerful and difficult to break. Understanding there are no easy solutions, these dedicated teams across county departments are working with each other and with other community partners to seek solutions that will make a difference and save lives.

Dana Kazel is the St. Louis County communications manager.