As the stresses over social distancing, mask wearing and vaccine supplies continue, a silent killer lurks in the shadows.
The opioid epidemic reaches far beyond local accessibility of both prescription drugs and street heroin. A quick look at local statistics from the Overdose Detection Mapping Application Program shows that from August 2019 to the end of 2020, law enforcement in southern Minnesota’s Steele and Rice counties know of 43 overdoses linked to opioid abuse — nine were fatal.
The bulk of the known overdoses have been concentrated in the area’s larger cities. Faribault has seen 14 of the 30 total overdoses in Rice County — two of which were fatal. Eleven of the 13 overdoses to take place in Steele County occurred in Owatonna, including all three of the fatalities. Despite the concentration in the larger cities, the epidemic is everywhere. Rural Rice County had a reported four overdoses, including one fatality, between September 2019 and August 2020, and in Steele County town of Medford, population roughly 1,266, was home to one opioid-related overdose in the last year.
“It’s here, it’s real and it’s affecting a lot of families and community members,” said Sgt. Paul LaRoche, commander of the Cannon River Drug and Violent Offender Task Force, which covers Rice and Le Sueur counties. “The presence has gone up — opioids in our area have been on the rise specifically with a lot more fentanyl-laced heroin. A lot of what our overdoses have been is that elevated presence of fentanyl.”
The Minnesota River Valley Drug Task Force is the lead agency in tracking and working opioid cases in St. Peter and the Mankato area. Jeff Wersal, MRVDTF commander, said the agency tries to track non-fatal overdoses, but that is difficult to hospital privacy laws. However, he did confirm a rise in fatal opioid overdoses in recent years.
In Nicollet County, there were zero fatal opioid overdoses in 2015-17, but in 2018-20, there have been two. In Blue Earth County, there were zero from 2015-18, but in 2019-20, there were five. Wersal noted that there were several more meth overdoses, but opioids are beginning to be more impactful in the area.
"I can’t give an accurate number, but I can tell you that drug overdose calls are almost a daily occurrence, especially in the Mankato area," Wersal said about opioids. "This is a huge jump from the past, even two or three years ago. Heroin and other opioids, like fentanyl, were hard to come by in our area as recent as three years ago — definitely not the case now."
While Le Sueur County is smaller, with a total population that barely eclipses the city of Owatonna, opioids still present a real and devastating problem. Le Sueur County Sheriff Brett Mason said they know of five overdoses over the past year, two of which were fatal, but he emphasized that is only what law enforcement knows.
“I can tell you these numbers aren’t accurate, based on the fact that I know there are more overdoses going on, but they’re not being reported,” Mason said, adding that if an overdose victim is brought to the hospital before law enforcement can respond, the patient’s information is private unless a criminal investigation is initiated. “It’s tough and it’s running rampant — we see that through the national data and locally. The opioid epidemic is certainly thriving and that is unfortunate.”
Mason said similar to what other southern Minnesota counties have found, he has seen an obvious and concerning growth in the opioid trend over the last two years. In August 2019, Cannon River task force agents made a highly unusual drug bust in the Le Sueur County city of Montgomery. That bust alone netted nearly 1,000 pills of the prescription opioid oxycodone. The pills were tested for other potentially dangerous substances, task force Sgt. LaRoche said. Results showed them to be counterfeit, another cog in the ongoing list of problems in the war on opioids.
“People are confusing these with being oxycodone when, in reality, they are counterfeit ‘M30’ pills, something that is being seen all across Minnesota and the United States over the past year or so,” LaRoche said. “In reality, these are fentanyl.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, fentanyl is a synthetic opioid pain reliever, approved for treating severe pain, typically advanced cancer. The CDC says it is 50 times more potent than heroin and 100 times more potent than morphine, and is typically prescribed in the form of lozenges or transdermal patches applied to the skin, which are then diverted for misuse and abuse across the country.
However, as the opioid epidemic rages on, the CDC says most cases of fentanyl-related harm, overdose and death, have been linked to illegally made fentanyl that is sold through illegal drug markets for its heroin-like high. It is often mixed with heroin and/or cocaine as a combination product — with or without the user’s knowledge — to increase its euphoric effects. The United States Drug Enforcement Administration reports that fentanyl is often added to heroin to increase its potency or to be disguised as highly potent heroin. As a result, the DEA says many users believe they are purchasing heroin and are unaware they are purchasing fentanyl, often resulting in overdose deaths.
There are also fentanyl analogs, such as acetylfentanyl, furanyfentanyl and carfentanil, which are similar in chemical structure to fentanyl but not routinely detected because specialized toxicology testing is required, according to the CDC. Estimates of their potency vary from less potent than fentanyl to much more potent than fentanyl, with carfentanil being estimated by the CDC as 10,000 times more potent than morphine.
Getting counterfeit pills, like M30, off the streets is a priority, and LaRoche said the investigation in the Montgomery bust is ongoing. Over a year later, the task force continues to try to find the main source of the pills made with a pill press.
“It’s rare to find someone in possession of that many [pills],” LaRoche said.
Wersal, of the Minnesota River Valley Task Force, noted that his task force focuses on the dealers, rather than the users.
"As a task force, we do our best to identify those who are distributing opioids," he said. "Since there is an increase of opioid users in the area, drug dealers take advantage of that and go to where the customers are."
He added, "The MRVDTF also focuses on identifying the supplier of the deadly opioids in the event of an overdose death. Our task force has had success and has gotten convictions or made arrests on most of the overdose deaths in the area."
Sgt. Andy Drenth, commander of the South Central Drug Investigation Unit, which includes the counties of Steele, Waseca, Freeborn and Faribault, said it is just as difficult to find large amounts of heroin during busts and seizures, especially when compared to the other drug that continues to plague southern Minnesota: methamphetamine. In the valley — including Le Sueur, Nicollet and Blue Earth counties — meth remains the most impactful drug.
“You just don’t see (opioids) in large quantities like you would with meth,” Drenth said. “You can easily find a pound of meth, but it is extremely rare to find that amount of heroin.”
Drenth attributes this anomaly to both the cost and the potency of heroin and other opioids. Though these drugs decreased in price in recent years, heroin and opioids pills are double the price of meth. And, users simply don’t need as much to get what they’re looking for, according to Drenth.
“Heroin is so potent that you don’t need that much to get high; a small amount will last a longer time typically,” he said.
A crap shoot
Between the variety of elements that range from the potency to the proximity and the lacing and the counterfeiting, most law enforcement say the opioid epidemic is not only present in southern Minnesota, but it is getting worse.
"The MRVDTF and other law enforcement agencies recognize that it is a serious issue and are doing our best to keep it from becoming out of control," Wersal said. "It is important to keep in mind that enforcement is only a part of the solution. Treatment is important, too, but I feel that prevention should be given more importance. Enforcement and treatment only come into play once someone has already become addicted to this poison. If we can prevent our family, friends, students and community members from using drugs in the first place, that will go a lot farther than the reactive actions of law enforcement and treatment courts."
LaRoche agreed, adding that while the addiction can happen to anyone, local law enforcement is seeing a greater number of young adults fall prey to opioid addiction.
“It’s so highly addictive that I think sometimes younger adults don’t realize how quickly they could become addicted and the dangers that follow it,” LaRoche said. “They get the heroin, and they think it’s regular. Then we are being called.”
Drenth points to the two most recent overdose calls that have occurred in Steele County, one on Dec. 9, the other eight days later. In both cases, three doses of the anti-opioid naloxone being administered to each victim. The intensity of the overdose Drenth attributes to a common offender: fentanyl.
“When the potency is really unknown that is where the overdose happens,” Drenth said. “People may be use to using a certain amount of heroin, but this time it might be different and have fentanyl, then you don’t know how much you’re actually taking.”
Faribault Police Chief Andy Bohlen, in an October interview, said that the inconsistency is specifically what makes it so deadly.
“It’s not mixed in a pharmaceutical lab. One pill might have nothing, not fentanyl, and one will have a double dose,” Bohlen said, noting the Faribault Police Department is now administering naloxone on an almost weekly basis. “You have no idea what you’re sticking in your system.”
Without the availability of naloxone, Bohlen believes the number of overdoses in southern Minnesota would be “off the wall.” While first responders in southern Minnesota began carrying naloxone in the last two years, the life-saving drug also became available to the public without a prescription in southern Minnesota pharmacies in early 2018. The availability of the medication, while crucial, distorts law enforcement statistics on opioid overdoses.
As heroin and other opioids continue to rise in popularity, Drenth expects the overdoses to increase as well.
“This is a party drug. It is affecting our youth and that is the really dangerous part,” Drenth said. “The potency of heroin is so addicting and so powerful that just one dose could be your first and your last.”
A local government agency and agricultural landowner teamed up to improve water quality in the German-Jefferson lakes chain.
The most conspicuous of Le Sueur County Soil and Water Conservation District’s water quality improvement projects restored a 2.5-acre wetland at the edge of a hog farm directly across a county road from Middle Jefferson Lake. The project will help to prevent potentially harmful pollutants from reaching the nearby lakes.
“The water doesn’t come off of our farm, but we get blamed for it, because it runs across our property,” said Leo Koppelman, who runs the feeder pig operation with his brother and son. “All I’ve heard is, ‘Koppelman’s hog farm is polluting the lake.’”
Middle Jefferson — one of five lakes in the chain that includes German, East Jefferson, West Jefferson and Swede’s Bay — is impaired for aquatic recreation due to nutrient loading. The SWCD’s $484,000 phosphorus reduction project aims to improve water quality in the chain with strategically placed best management practices that help to reduce nutrient loading. The chain lies within the Cannon River watershed, which drains into the Mississippi River.
“Whenever you have a landowner who wants to do something along a major recreational lake, you want to be able to do that,” said Ryan Jones, the Mankato-based South Central Technical Service Area engineer who worked on the wetland design.
The $40,000 wetland project on Koppelman’s land now diverts water from a ravine and treats runoff from about 200 acres — most of it from neighboring fields fertilized with cow manure and hog manure — before it enters the lake.
The Cleveland Township site is one of 13 identified as high priorities within the 15,400-acre watershed, based on terrain analysis, the Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) study, and onsite verification. It’s one of 10 that Mankato Water Resource Center monitoring had identified and prioritized years earlier.
A $387,000 Clean Water Fund grant from the Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources made it possible for Le Sueur SWCD staff to pursue projects with willing landowners. Matching funds include $34,000 from Le Sueur County’s aggregate mining tax. Landowners’ share was tiered, based on projects’ priority.
“That’s what I’ve always wanted to do, but I’ve never had the resources to do it myself, or never felt that I wanted to do it for somebody else just to appease them,” said Koppelman, whose share was 10%.
Not the first project
Over the years, the Koppelmans had taken steps to curb runoff.
In the 1970s, when the county determined that overflow caused by rain and snowmelt was polluting the lake, the Koppelmans built a lagoon and closed a couple of barns. Six years ago, Koppelman enrolled land in the federal Conservation Reserve Program and replaced a 1960s-built gabion basket. Designed for erosion control, it no longer functioned properly. Most recently, Environment and Natural Resources Trust Fund dollars made a bluff stabilization possible.
When he meets with lake association members, Le Sueur County SWCD Manager Mike Schultz stresses the need for cooperation — and money.
“I always tell these lake associations, ‘If you want to do something for the lake, you need money. Pancake feeds. Do something. If you can’t bring something to the table, how are we going to have the other half come to the table?” Schultz said. “I feel like our role is bringing these two together and making sure that we understand that we’re moving forward together. Leo’s been a great example of how this works.”
The Greater Jefferson-German Lakes Association contributed $12,000 toward Jefferson-German water quality improvements.
“Our goal is to work with anyone and everyone around the chain of lakes that is interested in preserving the quality of the water,” said association President Ralph Redding.
A retired Blue Cross Blue Shield financial analyst from Apple Valley who bought a cabin on Middle Jefferson Lake in 1991, Redding is one of about 130 shoreland property owners on Middle Jefferson Lake, and one of about 900 on the chain of lakes.
The 136-member association raised $10,000 through a raffle and event at Beaver Dam Resort, situated on the chain of lakes. To raise the rest, Redding asked area businesses to contribute items for an auction.
“What benefits are we going to obtain from the phosphorus runoff project?” Redding said. “The quality of the water should improve.”
More work to be done
The 21 best management practices completed by early December 2020 represent about 70% of the work planned in connection with the Clean Water Fund grant, which runs through December 2021. Practices tied to the grant include structures designed to slow and filter runoff, 275 acres of cover crops, and two wetland restorations totaling about 27 acres.
The Koppelman project alone is projected to reduce soil erosion by 161 tons a year, curb sediment loading by 69 tons a year and reduce phosphorus loading by slightly more than 79 pounds a year.
“If they’re all completed and function at their fullest, we will address 40% to 50% of the recommended phosphorus (reductions) from the WRAPS,” Schultz said, referring to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency’s Watershed Restoration and Protection Strategy.
Phosphorus feeds the algae that can turn lakes green.
Nutrient impairments are just one factor affecting the watershed. Schultz said the SWCD also is dealing with higher-than-average lake levels and flooding, caused in part by increasingly frequent heavy rains.
The Jefferson chain of lakes’ water level in 2019 was 1.63 feet higher than the historical average, which dates to 1971. (Technically, German Lake levels are recorded separately. Because German Lake is connected to the chain, its levels vary only slightly.)
Todd Piepho, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources’ Waterville-based area hydrologist, said 2019 water levels remained high nearly all season. Coupled with high winds, sustained high-water levels can cause significant shoreline damage.
A 6-inch rain put Koppelman’s wetland restoration to the test this summer shortly after construction finished.
“Everything worked exactly the way it was supposed to work. It took all the water that would run down the ditch and (across) our driveways. It stopped everything. It backed that excess water up in the wetland area,” Koppelman said.
Jones saw the flash-flood warnings for Le Sueur County that weekend. Then he received a text with photos.
“Anytime anyone does that after it rains, I kind of cringe. I always think of the worst-case scenario. Maybe that’s part of being the engineer,” Jones said. But the news was good. “The concept and all the engineering paid off because the basin took the water and was able to function correctly.”
Koppelman said several neighbors have complimented him on the project. Jones said passersby have given the highly visible site a lot of attention. That could generate more landowner interest in SWCD conservation projects.
Cost-effectiveness is key — especially with practices such as cover crops, where producers likely won’t see upfront savings.
“We are trying to have people adopt cover crops. If we can get them to do some of those (practices), we’re going to catch those numbers faster than we have ever dreamed of, more than a BMP (best management practice) or anything else, because we’re going to have vegetation on these fields, in theory, year-round,” Schultz said of meeting phosphorus reduction goals.
The SWCD stresses that reduced inputs lead to savings.
“There’s a lot of farmland, but if we can get some of those landowners to start adopting these ideas, we could make some large strides,” Schultz said.
Plans are underway to bring students back into Le Sueur-Henderson classrooms come January.
At a special School Board meeting on Monday, Dec. 21, Superintendent Marlene Johnson presented the directors with a plan that will have all grade levels in school two weeks into the new year.
In coordination with state and county public health officials, the LS-H Command Team created a phase-in plan to transition students at different grade levels from distance learning to in-person learning for elementary students and hybrid learning middle school and up.
Students at all grade levels will return to distance learning following the end of holiday break on Jan. 4. In-person services for eligible students will be available at the start of the semester at Park Elementary and Le Sueur-Henderson Middle/High School. Practices for high school winter activities are also set to resume the same day.
School at Park and Hilltop Elementary will be closed on Monday and Tuesday Jan. 11 and 12 for teacher prep-time, allowing elementary students to transition into in-person learning on Wednesday, Jan. 13.
Middle and high school students will have to wait a bit longer. After days out on Thursday and Friday Jan. 14 and 15, Le Sueur-Henderson students will return to their hybrid schedules on Monday, Jan. 18.
The new learning plan comes a week after Gov. Tim Walz relaxed state guidance on school districts. The state’s safe learning plan allows all districts to open their elementary schools regardless of county case rates.
“It is important to remember that even with the transition to an in-person learning model for elementary students our schools will continue to implement key mitigation strategies to help protect and promote the health and safety of our students and staff,” said Johnson in a letter to parents. “Students will continue to remain in specific cohorts to reduce the risk of exposure and staff members will implement the use of wearing a face shield along with a face mask/face covering. Basic health hygiene and cleaning measures will continue to be implemented into everyday practice. We also will be keeping a pulse on the COVID data for our community and district.”
Le Sueur-Henderson is not the only school in the area to draw up plans for reopening. Tri-City United administration released their own phase-in plan the week prior. Le Sueur County Public Health Director Cindy Shaughnessy said that all school districts in the area had come to her department to develop plans for resuming in-person and hybrid learning in the new year.
“[We’ve] worked with all of our school districts on a reintegration plan for bringing our kids back to school,” said Shaughnessy. “I can say that every district is planning to bring kids back to in-person learning in phases, in some shape or form after the first of the year.”