BEMIDJI -- While the world grapples with a viral pandemic, a quieter epidemic is still raging. Drug overdoses have seen a large uptick in the area in recent months. Paul Bunyan Drug Task Force Commander Joe Kleszyk and Bemidji Police Chief Mike Mastin weigh in with numbers, potential reasons and preventative measures.
Overdoses by the numbers
How large of an uptick? It’s tricky to tell. Breaking it down a bit, in the second quarter of 2020 -- April to June -- there were 36 overdoses in the region assisted by the Paul Bunyan Drug Task Force. Of those, eight people died.
This is in contrast with 16 overdoses that the Paul Bunyan Drug Task Force assisted with throughout all of 2019.
Looking at those numbers, the increase seems astronomical. Kleszyk said while there has certainly been an uptick, this isn’t necessarily the case.
Kleszyk has been working in narcotics-related law enforcement for a long time, but just became the Task Force Commander last year. He said due to the change in leadership, the way overdoses are recorded and reported has changed. Overdoses are something they count and track, but not part of the numbers the Task Force reports to the state quarterly. This may make up for some of the difference as overdoses in past years were likely under reported.
They still are, he further clarified. Since more and more people are carrying their own Narcan -- medication to treat a narcotic overdose in an emergency situation -- overdoses occur without being reported.
“The amount of people who have their own Narcan definitely affects our numbers too,” he said. “We'll hear -- especially in certain housing areas -- from somebody that ‘X amount of people overdosed in the past few days,’ but none of those were reported to law enforcement just because people have Narcan.”
Kleszyk said of the eight overdose deaths in the second quarter of 2020, victims ranged in age from 21 to 66. While it often varies, his best guess is the age group most affected in the region is between 20 and 35.
The split between genders is also usually pretty even, he said. Of those eight, five were women and three were men.
“Age isn't a determining factor on it. We've had overdoses happen much younger, we've had overdoses older,” he said.
Beltrami and Mahnomen Counties see the most overdoses out of the Paul Bunyan Drug Task Force coverage area.
People seem to generally think of opioids when thinking of the type of drugs causing overdoses. While this, generally speaking, is not always the case, Kleszyk said.
“We've had overdoses, fatalities even, of fentanyl, heroin, prescription drugs, MDMA and methamphetamine,” he said. “The vast majority of our overdoses are opioid-related.”
Mastin said it is important to realize heroin isn’t the only issue at play.
“People often ask about the heroin epidemic and say 'that's the number one drug in our area.' The reality is, it's not the number one drug used in our area,” he said. “I think it's important that people realize it's not just heroin that's the issue in our community. You have a lot of drug activity and it's causing problems, it's causing increased crime rates, it's causing lot a of issues we need to address as a community if we're going to make things better.”
Why are these overdoses occurring?
Both Kleszyk and Mastin said one of the large reasons for overdoses is people end up taking something that is more potent than they realize. This can be because someone went to a new dealer or the drug was laced with something.
“The tough part about heroin is I could show you five different substances that look completely different and they're all heroin,” Kleszyk said. “There's different forms of it. We'll see white powder, gray powder, tar-y stuff, rock stuff, so many different types. You'll have somebody who is a user and they go to one source for their dope. And for one reason or another, they can't go to that source. So they go to a new source. Well, let's say they normally use X amount at a time. They go to the new source, they try X amount of their product, which is maybe exponentially stronger. And because they didn't cut it as much, they overdose.”
Kleszyk also mentioned it’s hard to find a balance between issuing safety warnings and accidentally increasing demand for a drug. For example, in May, the Paul Bunyan Drug Task Force sent out a release warning people about blue pills being sold as Percocet.
“They happened to be laced with what we believe was fentanyl or something similar to that. And they had overdoses because of that,” Mastin said. “So someone who maybe has an addiction to a prescription drug buys it not realizing that it has far more than they expected.”
Kleszyk said the warning may have inadvertently caused more people to seek out the blue pills.
Why else are overdoses on the rise? Some experts are pointing to COVID-19.
“I've read some articles and some research papers over the last couple of months that have definitely shown a nationwide trend in overdoses going up that the researchers attribute to COVID-19, you know, isolation, depression kind of coincides with substance abuse,” Kleszyk said. “It makes perfect sense that people aren't using together as much, people are staying at home and people are socially distancing, and where maybe they normally would use in a group of people, if they overdose, you know, they don't have somebody there to help them.”
While Kleszyk said the increase is likely not as drastic as the numbers suggest, Mastin’s data regarding the use of Narcan on overdose responses shows a significant uptick as well.
Narcan was deployed 13 times in 2019. In the first seven months of 2020, it was already deployed 25 times by Bemidji police.
Kleszyk explained that overdose prevention isn’t as simple as just telling people not to do drugs, and he is sympathetic to users because addiction is a disease.
When it comes to preventing overdose deaths, time is of the essence. People are often afraid of getting in trouble if they see someone overdosing, and often wait until it is too late to contact emergency services.
“People are afraid to call the police,” Kleszyk said. But they may not have to be.
Kleszyk and Mastin both hope to spread awareness of a Good Samaritan law in place in Minnesota, which is a regulation intended to save lives.
Minnesota’s Good Samaritan law protects a person seeking medical assistance for someone experiencing a drug-related overdose; they may not be charged or prosecuted for the possession, sharing or use of a controlled substance or possession of drug paraphernalia.
Although these are only in effect if the person calling is cooperative and doesn’t flee the scene.
“I think there is that fear for people, they don't want to get in trouble. They know their friend needs help. Sometimes maybe they're reluctant to call before something bad really happens,” Mastin said. “You should be calling right away because time, time is valuable and calling for help could mean the difference between survival or not. People should be aware of that.”
Kleszyk said in order to help get someone the medical attention needed, it is important to give dispatchers all of the relevant information.
“Know the exact address. We can't get help to somebody if we don't know where to send the help,” he said.
It is also important to try to tell dispatchers what the person took.
“Was this a powder? Was it a pill? Is the person alert? Are they breathing? Do they have a pulse? Has Narcan been used?” he said.
Narcan, also known as naloxone, has increased in prevalence in recent years. It is a medication used to block the effects of opioids, often in a nasal spray or injection form.
The Bemidji Police Department was the first in northwestern Minnesota to equip all of its officers with Narcan, Mastin said.
He compared Narcan to a defibrillator, “We have those in all of our squad cars with the idea that we're there to save and preserve lives and that's the same approach we have with Narcan, it's a tool that can help us save a life,” he said.
The medication costs around $70 a dose.
“Since we started, we've had 72 deployments of Narcan,” Mastin said. “So we have saved 72 lives. I think that's important for people to realize. So there's 72 people that are still here or at least were brought back during emergency medical efforts.”
Kleszyk added that Narcan is also carried by most if not all members of law enforcement involved in the Paul Bunyan Drug Task Force.
“As far as the Paul Bunyan task force area goes, I think most, if not all, (law enforcement officers) carry Narcan. A lot of it's available personally, you know, people have their own personal supply of it,” he said. “It's available, opioid programs give it out, harm reduction programs give it out. So there's definitely people getting saved by Narcan that's not coming from EMS or our law enforcement.”
About the Task Force
Founded in 1988, the multi-jurisdictional task force includes members from 14 different agencies from northern Minnesota. They include the police departments from Bemidji, International Falls, and Park Rapids; the sheriff offices of Beltrami County, Cass County, Hubbard County, Koochiching County, Mahnomen County, as well as the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Leech Lake Indian Reservation and White Earth Reservation.
To help visualize that area, parts of the Task Force’s coverage area extends from Motley, located about an hour and a half south of Bemidji, all the way up to International Falls. The boundaries of the White Earth Nation extend almost to Detroit Lake. Leech Lake Nation goes almost to Grand Rapids.
Kleszyk said the reason for the cooperation and large area is to help better catch drug traffickers and distributors who often work across city and county lines.
“The point of a drug task force is these criminals and people trafficking drugs, they don't know what a county line or a city limit sign is," he said. "And to have a group of people that work together, to be able to cross from jurisdiction to jurisdiction and work on these cases together,” he said.