Grand Forks law enforcement, state officials report increase in opioid overdoses during pandemic
Reports of increased behavioral health issues, including substance use disorders, tend to increase during natural disasters. For North Dakotans struggling with addiction, social isolation during the pandemic can result in a lack of access to treatment and recovery services.
Opioid overdoses have increased in the Grand Forks area in recent months, an uptick that likely can be attributed to the pandemic as it drags into its sixth month.
The Grand Forks Police Department reports 23 opioid overdoses in the city since January, one of which was fatal. GFPD Lt. Brett Johnson said there were 30 opioid overdoses in Grand Forks in all of 2019.
This year, there were a total of four overdoses in January, February and March. In April through August, there have been 19. Ten of the people who overdosed in Grand Forks did so using the same substance, police have confirmed. Those overdoses remain under active investigation.
Johnson said it's hard to guess what might be driving the increase, but he offered some theories: people might be staying home more or working less; more people with substance use disorders might be out in the community on personal recognizance bonds rather than in jail; or people might be less concerned about law enforcement during the pandemic.
Laura Anderson, the assistant director of the behavioral health division in the Department of Human Services, said the uptick is more likely due to a broader behavioral health challenge presented by the pandemic.
"We're also seeing a lot of individuals reporting increased anxiety and depression," Anderson said. "I think it's just vital right now to really reach out to our friends and loved ones and check on them."
The Department of Behavioral Health does not yet have statewide 2020 data for opioid overdoses, but Anderson said an increase in overdoses throughout the state during the pandemic is something they are aware of and working to address.
She said it's common for there to be an increase in behavioral health problems, including substance use, during times of natural disasters, usually because of threats to physical safety and mental health. During a pandemic specifically, a lack of access to care and services during social isolation becomes one of the most critical missing pieces for people suffering from substance use disorders.
Most of the state's efforts to combat opioid use have continued during the pandemic, but Anderson said that in recent months focus has shifted to distributing at-home Naloxone doses and communicating ways that people can still connect with doctors via telehealth. Other services include a 24-hour recovery line.
The state has received federal funding to combat opioid use. On Aug. 28, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, through the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), awarded more than $5.1 million to state and tribal entities in North Dakota through the State and Tribal Opioid Response Programs.
That funding included more than $4 million to the North Dakota State Department of Human Services, $700,000 to the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians, $400,000 to the Spirit Lake Tribe, and $125,000 to the Altru Health System Youth Substance Abuse Prevention Program in Grand Forks.
Anderson said resources for substance use recovery and treatment can be found on the state's behavioral health website at behavioralhealth.nd.gov.
According to Grand Forks Police, if you suspect someone is suffering from an opioid overdose, first check for the signs, including unresponsiveness to voice or touch; shallow, slow or no breathing; small pinpoint pupils; blue or gray lips or nails; and gurgling or snoring. Lay the person on their back, and administer Naloxone narcan nasal spray if available. Call 911, and provide rescue breathing of one breath every six seconds. Repeat Naloxone every two to three minutes if no response. Stay with that person until help arrives, or if you have to leave them, turn them on their side.
If you or someone you know needs addiction help, call the North Dakota Behavioral Health 24/7 recovery line at 1-844-44-TALK2 for free, confidential, anonymous help from a trained peer support specialist with lived experience in addiction.