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Family fights for wide availability of fentanyl test strips following daughter's death

Family fights for wider availability of fentanyl test strips
Family fights for wider availability of fentanyl test strips 03:53

MINNEAPOLIS -- It's undeniable how much Mark and Brenda Wiger adore their daughter Jessica: a devoted wife, sister, daughter and aunt who had many friends and a passion for music.

Mark describes her as the "beauty in his life."

But last summer, the Wigers received a devastating call telling them their Jessica had died of an apparent cocaine overdose.

The news stunned them and shattered their hearts, learning later it was laced with fentanyl 27 times a therapeutic dose.

RELATED: More Minnesotans, including children, succumbing to fentanyl-related deaths

Soon they were haunted by how it could've ended differently.

"One of Jessica's best friends came bursting through the door and she was full of tears saying, 'I'm so sorry. I'm so sorry. Jessica sent me a text message at 11:30 at night saying where can I get a fentanyl test strip?' And she said, 'I didn't get that message until this morning,'" Mark Wiger recalled in a recent interview with WCCO.

Fentanyl test strips can detect the presence of the lethal drug in other kinds of drugs, a harm reduction strategy that can save people from the deadly opioid and spare their loved ones unthinkable tragedy at a time when the powerful drug is killing Minnesotans and Americans across the country at an alarming rate.

What's needed for the test is a small amount of the substance—enough to cover President Lincoln's head on a penny—and one milliliter of water, which is about as much as a bottle cap one-quarter of the way full.

RELATED: WCCO investigates the fentanyl crisis in Minnesota

The drug must dissolve in the water before putting the test strip in it for 15 seconds and it should produce a result in minutes. One line means fentanyl has been detected in the sample; two lines means a negative result.

They only cost about $1 a piece.

But fentanyl test strips only became legal in Minnesota two years ago. And in many other states, they are still considered drug paraphernalia and barred from possession and distribution. One 2022 analysis of laws across the country found only seven states, including Minnesota, allow their use.

Amid their grief, the Wigers wanted to learn more about them.

"I went to my Google search and asked the question on Google: where can I find fentanyl test strips? And it was just very hard to come up with 'yes you can get them here, you can get them there.'"

That this life-saving tool wasn't readily available baffled the Wigers. Now they had a new purpose: to increase awareness about the fentanyl test strips and get them in front of more people.

RELATED: The families left behind by the fentanyl crisis

They eventually connected with the Steve Rummler Hope Network, a nonprofit in St. Paul fighting against the opioid epidemic, which has distributed tens of thousands of the test strips to local organizations.   

On each of their packets of two fentanyl strips, there is a QR code allowing a user to order more of them and provide information to the Hope Network about their experience.

Maddy Reagan, the overdose prevention director for the nonprofit, said the data suggests the test strips are working.

"We found that 91% who report whatever substance they intended to consume tests positive for fentanyl, report some change in behavior," she told WCCO. "So either getting rid of the drugs entirely or using safer use strategies like not using alone, making sure naloxone is present, and other thing to help a potentially fatal encounter with fentanyl.

The Wigers said they partnered with a local bar on one occasion to put the test strips in bathrooms and behind the bar and only a few were left by the end of the night.

In an effort to get the test strips in more places, they pushed the legislature to require sales in new cannabis dispensaries coming to market soon.

The new law legalizing marijuana doesn't mandate them, but it does allow sales in dispensaries and liquor stores when that wasn't allowed before.

"They're a little complicated to use but they're worth the wait," Mark Wiger said. "If we could only have that day back—that July 13—to use that test strip. And everyone who's lost someone would wish for the same thing."

The Steve Rummler Hope Network offers fentanyl test strip kits. Click here to learn more.

Rainbow Health SSP and North Point Health also offer them, according to the Minnesota Department of Health.

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