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Rice County response to opioid epidemic meets addicts where they’re at

There are many paths to recovery, but getting there is sometimes the hardest part.

That is why in Rice County, the Opioid Response Project puts an emphasis on meeting people with addiction where they’re at in their own personal journey. Jessica Bakken, the coordinator for the project’s Mobile Opioid Support Team (MOST), said this is a crucial part of the process when it comes to building rapport and trust with clients.

“I really believe in meeting the person where they are at versus trying to get them to go somewhere they might not be ready to go,” Bakken said.

In 2019, the most recent year figures are available, 49,860 people died in the U.S. from an opioid overdose, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that between August 2019 and July 2020, there were 61,297 opioid overdose deaths.

The problem is also local. So far this year, there have already been numerous opioid overdoses in the area, including four Steele County residents who have survived overdoses of heroin, Oxycodone and fentanyl. Rice County has recorded seven opioid overdoses already in 2021, two of which were fatal.

However, that number could have been greater if it wasn’t for Bakken and her team.

Since the end of 2019, MOST has been able to connect with more than 80 individuals in Rice County with opioid use disorder. The patient-centered team helps individuals using or in recovery by providing support and connections to community resources that range from emergency funding for housing to harm reduction or medication assisted treatment.

Ashley Anderson, the director of collaborative health projects at Healthy Community Initiative in Northfield, said the project began when a group of community leaders came together to discuss the ongoing concern of opioid overdoses in the area.

“It was determined that the number of opioid overdoses was not declining despite efforts,” said Anderson, adding that the community leaders decided to double down on those efforts to make a bigger impact. “We started with a series of conversations with stakeholders and asked about barriers individuals face. We asked people to dream about what could make a difference locally.”

Anderson said from those conversations a few themes emerged, yet they all seemed to center around the same idea: remove any and all barriers that may prevent someone from seeking treatment.

“The barriers individuals face are so unique and different for each person,” Anderson said. In order to overcome these barriers, the project took on a community partnership approach. In essence, the team works as a funnel to connect people to the resources they need to help them along their journey.

The collaborative effort is a joint effort between a wide variety of organizations including the Healthy Community Initiative, Three Rivers Community Action, Family Services Collaborative, Rice County Chemical and Mental Health Coalition, Rice County Community Corrections, Rice County Public Health, Rice County Social Services, and local school districts. Funded through a grant from the Minnesota Department of Human Services and the Minnesota Department of Health, MOST provides a “choice” for opioid users as opposed to a stringent program. According to Bakken, that is a vital key to unlocking lasting success.

Abstinence vs. harm reduction

“We would love for everyone to be abstinent-based, but that’s not the road for everyone and it’s just not always their path,” Bakken said. “We all have different paths and there can be a lot of stigma or judgment in certain communities if you’re not choosing abstinence, but this is based on self-determination and meeting people where they are at and I just want more people to know that.”

While abstinence-based programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous are a bit better known, Director of Clinical Care and certified nurse practitioner at HealthFinders-Faribault Emily Carroll said medical assisted treatment – or MAT – is one of the most effective tools in treating opioid use disorder.

“I’ve seen incredible transformations in how people feel and what they see in their future when they’ve been successful with MAT,” Carroll said. “And that is our aim – to make it successful for people and figure out how to make it work for them.”

Carroll is one of four health professionals in Rice County who can prescribe suboxone and/or buprenorphine, drugs used to treat opioid use disorders and addiction. While the drugs are not dangerous, Carroll said the problem falls in that they are highly regulated.

“We need to have a special waiver from the [Drug Enforcement Administration] in order to prescribe them and it takes some extra training – though the training is not difficult and is quite helpful,” Carroll said. “It’s also a stepped process, so all providers start with a 30 patient limit.”

Both Carroll and another HealthFinders professional have a 100-patient limit, working toward the maximum of 250 patients. Northfield Hospital + Clinics Opiate Agonist Therapy Clinic in Lonsdale also has a provider that provides this specific treatment option. The Lonsdale location was the only option when the Rice County project first launched, and Carroll said they have since been able to expand access to MAT by up to 40% across the county since.

Nightmare of withdrawal

Bakken and Carroll said they believe that one of the reasons MAT can be such a successful option for opioid users is because of the overall fear of withdrawal. Bakken said specifically when it comes to fentanyl, the pain that comes with the withdrawal is unreal.

“It’s just baffling how bad it is,” Bakken said, recalling anecdotes from her clients about their own withdrawals or watching others go through the withdrawal. “It’s like a horror story.”

Bakken said users are genuinely afraid of withdrawal and that the fear can often prolong their process of getting off opioids, but that is precisely why MOST is here and waiting for them.

“It’s really difficult but that’s what we’re here for,” Bakken said, adding that sometimes it takes up to a year for a person to finally respond to her contacts before they are ready to move forward. “We can connect you with a provider, get you into a clinic, get you treatment, whatever you need.”

Whether MOST has helped address the main problem that originally ignited the project – the continuous stream of opioid overdoses in Rice County – Bakken said it is hard to know for sure, but that she knows the impact they are making is real and crucial.

“How many people are starting their addiction versus how many people are getting better, that I don’t know,” Bakken said. “But I see the impact of this program all the time — it has definitely impacted this community for the better.”


Police investigate early morning stabbing on School Street

The Owatonna police are investigating a stabbing that took place early Tuesday morning that left one individual fighting for his life.

At 3:47 a.m., police were called to 1120 E School St. for a report of a stabbing following a domestic dispute. According to police, a 42-year-old man had suffered stabs wounds to the chest and was airlifted to Rochester with life threatening injuries.

No arrests have been made at this time. Investigators are asking any members of the public who may have information about this incident to call the Owatonna Police Department at 507-444-3800.

Captain Eric Rethemeier said there is no current threat to public safety.

Assisting at the scene were the Steele County Sheriff’s Office, South Central Drug Investigation Unit, Mayo Clinic Ambulance Service, and North Memorial Air Care.

This remains an ongoing investigation. Further information will be released as it becomes available.


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School Board approves contractors for new high school construction
  • Updated

Construction of the new Owatonna High School is one step closer to reality after the Owatonna School Board approved a partial contract award Monday.

The School Board awarded bids totaling $36.5 million for work on the new high school building, which is set to break ground in May. Board member Jolayne Mohs abstained from the vote because of a family connection to one of the companies the board was approving.

More bids for the high school construction project are expected to be presented to the School Board for approval April 12.

Many of the approved contractors for the various projects are Minnesota-based and a few are area businesses in Owatonna, Blooming Prairie, Faribault and Dodge Center.

Board member Deborah Bandel raised some concerns about keeping more of the project’s funding within the local economy and hiring more local workers. While it would be great to see more local companies getting these project bids, Olson noted, the bids are public and open to companies which can offer the right bid for the work scope.

“There might be situations too, in particular in some of these larger contracts, that a company will come in and then they will also subcontract with one of our local contractors because perhaps the contractors that reside here weren’t big enough to take on the scope, but they may in fact do some of the work and be a subcontractor of the larger company to do that work so that’s possibility,” Superintendent Jeff Elstad said.

Mohs pointed out that workers often pump money into the local economy as they stay in local hotels, eat at local restaurants and shop while in the area for work.

While contractors with the lowest bids were awarded the majority of the work so far, three were chosen through a best value bid process. These work scopes were the project’s concrete, structural steel and site clearing, all projects that need to be done in order to get construction rolling. Axel H. Ohman Inc. of Minneapolis was chosen to do the concrete work for $4.9 million, Ted Mannstedt & Son of La Crosse, Wisconsin, was chosen for the structural steel work for $4.2 million and JJD Co. of Blooming Prairie was chosen to do the site clearing and earthwork for $6.9 million.

“Normally when you go out for bids, it’s just the lowest bid is your winner, and you move forward ... and then we just start the process. With the best value, it gives us a little more flexibility of who the contractors can be,” said Bob Olson, the district’s facilities, infrastructure and security director.

A rubric point system was created to weigh contractor options for those three work scopes, taking into account the bid, the contractor’s reference and whether the contractors have similar experience on a similar size project. After considering these variables, the top two to four candidates were brought in for an interview. The interviews were also calculated into the point system, according to Olson.

“These (bids) have all been vetted. We’ve had Kraus-Anderson go through and make phone calls to make sure that their numbers are good, their bonds are good, everything like that is up and running,” Olson told the board prior to the approval.

Other bids awarded Monday for the high school construction were:

Final clearing: Prime Construction Solutions of Bloomington, $125,000

Finish carpentry and exterior out building: Mohs Contracting Inc. of Owatonna, $2.1 million

Plastic laminate casework and millwork: ICG of St. Cloud, $778,146

Doors, frames and hardware: Johnson Hardware of Dodge Center, $879,520

Entrances, storefronts and curtain walls: Ford Metro Inc. of Rochester, $2.3 million

Tile: MCI Inc. of Waite Park, $1.2 million

Ceilings and acoustical treatments: Twin City Acoustics of New Hope, $1.1 million

Flooring: Floors by Beckers of St. Cloud, $1.4 million

Wood flooring: H2I Group of Minneapolis, $296,100

Terrazzo: Advanced Terrazzo and Tile Co. of Coon Rapids, $690,000

Painting: Admiral Coatings Inc. of Maple Lake, $641,800

Visual display boards: Building Material Supply Inc. of Edina, $243,100

Specialties: Building Material Supply Inc. of Edina, $104,235

Loading dock: Miner Ltd., doing business as Star Equipment, of Lino Lakes, $25,290

Food service: TriMark of Rogers, $1.1 million

Gymnasium equipment: H&B Specialized Products of Eden Prairie, $252,900

Bleacher seating: SAAFE LLC of Excelsior, $186,838

Auditorium seating: H&B Specialized Products of Eden Prairie, $145,700

Stadium grandstands: F&D Specialty Stands of North Collins, New York, $1.2 million

Greenhouse: Albert J. Lauer Inc. of Farmington, $171,354

Wheelchair lift: Arrow Lift of Duluth, $34,680

Special foundations: Peterson Contractors of Reinbeck, Iowa, $381,000

Asphalt paving: Crane Creek Asphalt of Faribault, $1.4 million

Concrete paving: Ultra Concrete of Cokato, $1.3 million

Fencing: American Fence Company of Rochester, $739,645

Irrigation, landscape and site furnishings: Autumn Ridge Landscaping of Loretto, $1.6 million


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