MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — The opioid epidemic led to a record number of drug overdoses in the United States last year. The spike is happening in Minnesota, too.

Just under 800 Minnesotans died from drug overdoses in 2019. More than 1,000 died last year — a 35% jump.

When a lot of the world was shutting down due to the pandemic, the counselors at the Alliance Wellness Clinic in Bloomington stayed open to help people struggling with opioid addiction. Yussuf Shafie owns the clinic.

“People lost jobs people, lost family members,” Shafie said. “We’ve lost some folks, unfortunately. It is very tough. You think, ‘What happened?’ Is there any way you could have saved this person?”

Counselor Dan Sparks says one of the biggest triggers for addicts is boredom, and he says some clients were even using their stimulus checks on drugs.

“When the pandemic started it did get busier here at the clinic, and in fact it’s still busy, and the counselors here are seeing a lot of fentanyl,” Sparks said.

Dr. Gavin Bart, an addiction medicine specialist at Hennepin Healthcare in Minneapolis, says deadly overdoses from illicitly manufactured opiates like fentanyl are way up in Minnesota.

(credit: Eric Baradat/AFP via Getty Images)

“Deaths do tend to stray young, so we’re looking more in the 30s and 40s,” Bart said. “We received more calls than ever in 2020 and 2021 for people seeking services, so we know that people want treatment.”

But it can be tough to find a provider.

“There just aren’t enough treatment providers right now, period,” he said.

But when connections are made, it’s possible to break the addiction cycle.

“I’ve had quite a few clients that are doing really, really well, holding down great jobs, holding down relationships,” Sparks said. “We have a lot of people that have graduated from the program, we have people that are successful that are in recovery. Recovery is possible.”

Dr. Bart is concerned that the pandemic overshadowed this epidemic of drug overdoses. He pointed out that for people 15 to 54 — before the vaccine was available — the chances of dying from a drug overdose in 2020 were higher than the chances of dying from COVID-19.

Erin Hassanzadeh