MITCHELL, S.D. - An increase in overdose deaths and two nearby opioid seizures could mark the potential for a larger drug outbreak, according to the state's top prosecutor.
In just three years, accidental drug overdose deaths in South Dakota climbed 59 percent from 32 deaths in 2013 to 51 last year, according to statistics collected by the South Dakota Department of Health and shared by the Attorney General's Office.
South Dakota Attorney General Marty Jackley mentioned two recent fentanyl seizures, in which authorities allegedly found 1,000 fentanyl pills in Mitchell and 20,000 pills in Chamberlain, which he said could be a sign of a major opioid outbreak on the horizon for South Dakota.
"We've seen it with meth and other things that it eventually can reach our state," Jackley said.
With opioids, which include fentanyl and heroin, becoming more than just a threat in South Dakota, Jackley has decided to take action by joining a national investigation into how opioid manufacturers may be creating or prolonging the drug epidemic.
Jackley said five opioid manufacturers are being investigated, but he declined to give their names, as the nation's attorneys general agreed to embargo the information.
Fentanyl can be used medically as a painkiller, but Jackley said South Dakota physicians and pharmacists are not at fault for the recent drug busts. With thousands of pills confiscated, he believes the drugs have been brought into South Dakota via the black market, possibly from mills in China or Florida.
Overdoses in South Dakota may be rising, but as of 2014, South Dakota boasted the third lowest age-adjusted drug overdose death rates in the country, according to statistics provided by Jackley's office, with 7.8 deaths per 100,000 people.
Only Nebraska and North Dakota had lower rates, with 7.2 and 6.3 deaths, respectively. The death rate was highest in West Virginia with 35.5 deaths per 100,000 people.
But even with a low overdose rate, Jackley said his involvement in the opioid investigation will help South Dakota remain proactive against a growing problem.
"I recognize the critics could say, 'Jackley might be jumping the gun because we're in good shape,' but one of the reasons we are in good shape is we've been extremely proactive," Jackley said.
Jackley mentioned both the state's Prescription Drug Monitoring Program (PDMP), which provides prescribers and pharmacists with a controlled substance dispension history for their patients, and the availability of Narcan, or naloxone, which blocks the effects of opioids to avoid overdoses.
Officials in Mitchell said there have been overdoses in town in the past, but it hasn't been a common issue lately.
Mitchell Detective Sgt. Dean Knippling couldn't recall a fatal overdose in the past year, but he believes the recent fentanyl cases warrant a larger investigation.
"It's definitely alarming that it's here," Knippling said. "It is definitely a law enforcement, public safety concern, especially when you look at the availability that's obviously out there."