BISMARCK-The number of drug overdose deaths in North Dakota last year increased slightly, according to data from the state Department of Health.
The Division of Vital Statistics data shows there were 76 drug-related deaths in North Dakota in 2017, an increase from 68 deaths the year prior. The deaths include suicides and accidental overdoses.
Last year was "pivotal" for the state, as it was the first year state funding was appropriated for drug overdose prevention efforts, including launching the Free Through Recovery Program and peddling naloxone kits statewide, said Pam Sagness, director of the North Dakota Department of Human Services Division of Behavioral Health.
Sagness said the Department of Human Services is awaiting the final number of overdose deaths in 2017 from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention before determining the effectiveness of such efforts.
Drug overdose death data differs from the state Division of Vital Statistics and the CDC. Though the CDC uses the same data from the Division of Vital Statistics, the federal agency interprets the data differently to determine what constitutes an overdose death, Sagness said. In 2016, the CDC reports there were 77 overdose deaths.
However, preliminary overdose death numbers from the CDC show about a 5 percent increase from 2016 to 2017. Over the years, the state has seen a slowing in the increase of drug overdose deaths.
From 2013 to 2014, North Dakota saw a 115 percent increase in drug overdose deaths. From 2014 to 2015, there was a 42 percent increase. From 2015 to 2016, there was a 26 percent increase.
Sagness said the preliminary CDC data is "hopeful for us," but she said the numbers could go up until its finalized.
"The increases over time were significant, and now they're really decreasing," she said.
Opioid prevention efforts started in 2016, when the the North Dakota Department of Human Services Behavioral Health Division collaborated with the state Reducing Pharmaceutical Narcotics Task Force to host opioid symposiums. Also that year was the first year North Dakota began offering medication-assisted treatment in the form of methadone clinics, the first clinic opening in Minot in August 2016.
In 2017, lawmakers approved a number of bills totaling about $7 million for behavioral health services. Sagness said, since then, more than 1,500 people have been trained across the state in overdose response, disseminated more than 5,000 naloxone kits and trained 150 medical providers on better ways to prescribe opioids.
While the Division of Behavioral Health holds out for final 2017 data from the CDC, the health department is looking at using a federal grant to improve drug overdose death data.
The health department received two grants from the CDC this year, one to establish a reporting system on violent deaths in the state and the other to implement an opioid overdose surveillance system.
The goal is to improve data collection to identify targeted and statewide overdose prevention efforts, according to Tracy Miller, state epidemiologist. Violent death reporting, which includes suicides and homicides, often involves opioids and other drugs.
"Our really big goal, especially among the overdoses is: Is the data that we're going to be collecting ... improving the information that we can provide back to the Department of Human Services?" Miller said.
Some of the grant funding will go toward hiring an additional person to collect the data, Miller said.
Sagness said it would be beneficial to have more data on drug overdose deaths in North Dakota. Currently, the state drug overdose data is not separated by the specific type of drug, but rather the drug group. Miller said this will also be looked at under the grant, as well as dissecting data by age, race and location.