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Serving Northern St. Louis County, Minnesota

Ely forum addresses opioid crisis

State recorded 632 overdose deaths last year

Keith Vandervort
Posted 10/31/17

ELY – On the eve of President Donald Trump’s declaration that the opioid crisis is a national public health emergency, Ely residents gathered at Washington Auditorium to discuss the local impacts …

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Ely forum addresses opioid crisis

State recorded 632 overdose deaths last year


ELY – On the eve of President Donald Trump’s declaration that the opioid crisis is a national public health emergency, Ely residents gathered at Washington Auditorium to discuss the local impacts of the drug problem.

During a White House signing ceremony, President Trump said last Thursday that the nation’s opioid epidemic is killing more than 100 people every day and is the “worst drug crisis in American history,” and he pledged the nation’s full resolve in overcoming it.

Jeff Polcher, a substance abuse prevention and intervention social worker for St. Louis County Health and Human Services, told a sparse audience, “Right now we’re in an epidemic, some would disagree but the numbers don’t lie. There were 632 fatal overdoses in Minnesota last year.”

Other panelists included George Burger of the Ely Police Department, Laura Palombi, an assistant professor at the University of Minnesota College of Pharmacy, Deb Hernandez, Rural AIDS Action Network, Jeff Kazel, Duluth Police Department, Stacy Sundquist of the St. Louis County Attorney’s Office, Verne Wagner, Nar Anon, and David Archambault of the Range Treatment Center. The forum was organized by St. Louis County Public Health and Human Services department.

Burger said the Ely Police Department is seeing an increase in the use of all drugs. “The big thing right now in our community is opioid use,” he said. “Impaired driving, because of drugs, has gone up. We’re not only worried about alcohol impaired driving but drug-impaired driving, too,” he said. “(Drug) use, along with overdoses, just keeps increasing.”

Palombi, who graduated from Ely High School 20 years ago, said she is working with St. Louis County grant funds to find solutions for safe prescribing of opioids and distributing other medical information to professionals and the community.

“We’re looking to see if there’s an interest in starting a coalition in the Ely area on opioid use and misuse,” she said. “This affects all of us and it’s taking a lot of lives. We’re seeing what we can do together to find solutions.”

Palombi also works with prevention and education in schools and the community. “We continue to work on more grant funding to get these programs into the rural schools.

If a person overdoses on heroin, prescription pain medications or other opioids, their life can be saved if they are quickly given Naloxone, a medicine that blocks or reverses the opioids’ effects.

 The Minnesota Targeted Response to the Opioid Crisis grant that was awarded to St. Louis County last month includes funds specifically to expand Naloxone treatment. With the goal of increasing the amount of Naloxone dispensed, the grant includes money to increase outreach to pharmacies, especially those in rural areas, and to provide education and training about this life- saving medication.

Training sessions have now been scheduled around the region for physicians, pharmacists, dentists, advanced practice nurses and physician assistants. A training session will be held later this month at Vermilion Community College.

In a statement released last week, the White House said, “building upon the recommendations in the interim report from the President’s Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis, President Donald J. Trump has instructed his Administration to use all appropriate emergency and other authorities to respond to the crisis caused by the opioid epidemic.”

“The opioid crisis is an emergency, and I am saying, officially, right now, it is an emergency. It’s a national emergency,” Trump said earlier. “We’re going to spend a lot of time, a lot of effort and a lot of money on the opioid crisis. It is a serious problem the likes of which we have never had.”

Among the recommendations were to rapidly increase treatment capacity for those who need substance abuse help; to establish and fund better access to medication-assisted treatment programs; and to make sure that health care providers are aware of the potential for misuse and abuse of prescription opioids by enhancing prevention efforts at medical and dental schools.

Since 1999, the number of American overdose deaths involving opioids has quadrupled, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. From 2000 to 2015, more than 500,000 people died of drug overdoses, and opioids account for the majority of those. New government data show an increase in opioid overdose deaths during the first three quarters of last year, an indication that efforts to curb the epidemic are not working.

Declaring a public health emergency makes the opioid epidemic the government’s top priority, infusing much-needed cash into hard-hit areas and bolstering resources.

Sundquist said she has seen how opioid addiction hits every part of a person’s life. A new “drug court” has been set up to give someone intensive support instead of sending them to jail in hopes they don’t re-offend. “I tell parents we’re not trying to make criminals out of kids, we’re just trying to get them on the right track,” she said.

“We’re also being as aggressive as we can to prosecute higher level offenders,” Sundquist said. “If we put everyone who was a drug offender in jail we’d be more overcrowded that we are. That’s why we’re looking at other options.”

Kazel is involved with the Lake Superior Drug and Violent Crime Task Force that recently merged with the Boundary Waters Drug Task Force.

He explained opioid drugs are often prescribed after a surgery and doctors do not understand the addiction rate.

“The more access (to drugs) the more people become addicted,” he said. He urged everyone to properly dispose of unneeded pills. A drop-off box is located by the Ely Police Department office in City Hall.

He also stressed the importance of teaching kids that the pill in the medicine cabinet is no different from heroin.

Burger said the Ely Police Department has hired an officer who will be trained to work in the Ely schools. “One of the goals of Chief Lahtonen is to get someone in the schools as much as we can,” he said.

Drug enforcement actions in Ely may not be very visible to some residents, Burger said. “People come up to me on a weekly basis and say someone they know of is selling meth. I ask them how they know and they say they heard it from somebody. We have to follow procedural law to get them. We can’t just go into somebody’s house to see if they’re making meth.”

Minnesota Health Commissioner Dr. Ed Ehlinger issued the following statement regarding the federal government’s announcement of new steps to address the nation’s opioid crisis:

“Opioid addiction is a serious public health problem with tragic consequences in Minnesota and around the country. Many steps have been taken to address this problem in our state, and more resources and actions are needed to reinforce and expand on those efforts. Unfortunately, the announcement by the Trump Administration does not appear to provide the right mix of actions and resources to have a significant and lasting impact.

“It is important to understand that the crisis of opioid addiction does not occur in a vacuum. At the same time we are seeing an increase in opioid addictions and deaths, we are also seeing significant increases in alcohol and other substance abuse, mental health crises, suicides and other violent deaths. These are all diseases of disconnection and despair arising from the same set of community conditions – lack of connection, belonging and hope.

“While we must directly address the issue of opioids, we also must address these underlying conditions through broader public health and community-building efforts. That includes working for stronger schools, safer neighborhoods, better access to transportation and a sustainable income for all Minnesotans. By taking this broader, more complete view of public health we can more effectively treat those impacted today and prevent more problems in the future.”


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