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A Minnesota community group's response to the rise in fentanyl

Apr 12, 2022 06:16AM ● By Editor
Boxes of Narcan await distribution in Duluth, Minn. The Indigenous Peoples Task Forces distributes Narcan kits to prepare community members to respond to any potential overdoses. 
Photo: Derek Montgomery for MPR News 2020

By Tom Crann and Ngoc Bui from Minnesota Public Radio News • April 11, 2022

A new study illustrates how fentanyl, a synthetic opioid that is 30 to 50 times stronger than heroin, has taken the opioid crisis to another level. Researchers say law enforcement seized 10 million pills nationally last year — nearly 50 times more than 4 years ago. 

In Minnesota, this is posing new challenges to community groups already fighting the opioid crisis. The Indigenous Peoples Task Force is one of these groups. MPR News host Tom Crann spoke with Nicole Christian, a Narcan trainer, about the organization's response to the crisis.

Hear the full conversation by using the audio player above or reading the transcript below. It has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

You are a Narcan trainer. I want you to tell us what [Narcan] is for people who aren't aware and what your job looks like.

Narcan is the antidote for opioid overdoses, basically. My job is to educate people on the risks of overdosing, to try and encourage some prevention, and also how to respond to overdoses if they run into it with their family or with strangers in the community. And then making sure that everybody has access to Narcan kits.

What have things looked like for you on the ground with this rise of fentanyl and how has it changed your work?

We've definitely seen such an increase in the problem in the past couple of years. We've had a lot of overdoses on our own property. A lot of the staff has had to respond to them themselves and bring people back before the paramedics could arrive. 

So, we've done a lot more outreach. We've been trying to reach out to the unsheltered encampments and to set up little pop-up training sessions in the hotels that were set up for people during COVID. So, it's been a lot more on-the-ground things.

What is different, if anything, about fentanyl and how it responds to the antidote, Narcan?

It's extremely more potent, and I think the insidious part about it is it's been laced into a lot of different kinds of drugs. Even people that are using meth and [non-]opioids end up having their drugs laced with fentanyl and it completely catches them off guard — and then having the stimulants [in their system] makes the overdose worse. 

Because of how much stronger [fentanyl] is, it takes a lot more doses of Narcan to bring someone back. We've heard cases of people needing 11 doses before they start to breathe again on their own.

Your organization is called the Indigenous Peoples Task Force. I'm wondering how Indigenous culture of your community, or indigenous practices, are informing your response to this fentanyl and opioid crisis.

Our community is dying at 7 times the rate of white Minnesotans and I think that's very much connected to the trauma that they experience, so we're very cognizant of that in our work. We also focus on the strengths that this community has and the resiliency there: offering different ways of healing [and] making sure people have access to ceremonies. We have a fire every week where people can come and offer their tobacco or to smudge. We really try and connect them to the strengths that they have.

As someone who sees this problem firsthand — for some, they might say it seems far away. What do you want people to know about fentanyl and the larger opioid crisis?

I think in reality, at least everybody in my community, they know either a family member or a friend — somebody that's been struggling with this and is either still struggling with it or has died. So, I just hope that people educate themselves about what's going on because it's spreading and I think that will become a rare saying: that this is far from them.

What do you think people need to know as a place they can start?

I think the biggest place people can start is internally. With clients, what stops them from seeking help is the stigma. So, I think people shifting that mindset and realizing that these are our community: they love people and they have people who love them. Once people come from that place of caring on a personal level, that's when the next steps come of training themselves [on] how to respond to an opioid overdose so that they are prepared if they ever run into it on the street or in their own home.

To receive further information on Narcan or a Narcan kit, contact Nicole Christian at (937) 689-3701 or Melissa Kirby at (651) 361-9728.

To listen to the audio version of this story and read related reporting, follow this link to the MPR News website.

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