Drug overdoses are spiking in Alaska; public health officials are trying to understand why

Updated: May. 21, 2021 at 4:36 PM AKDT
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - In recent weeks, opioid-related overdoses have spiked in Alaska, prompting public health officials to double down on substance misuse awareness and outreach efforts as they try to understand what is causing the spike.

Overdoses have been trending upward, but the trajectory saw a dramatic increase starting in March that continued to climb sharply, with last week being one of the worst ever for Alaska.

The latest data is based on emergency room visits and needs analysis, according to health officials.

DHSS officials shared data on May 20, 2020 demonstrating a severe spike in heroin involved...
DHSS officials shared data on May 20, 2020 demonstrating a severe spike in heroin involved overdoses in Alaska.(Alaska DHSS)

“We’re not the only state that’s seeing an unusual amount of overdose activity, and so probably it’s similar to what’s happening in other states,” said Anna Frick with the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services during a video conference with reporters on Thursday. “Looking at these visits in specific, there’s nothing that sort of really stands out about them, they seem similar to other heroin overdoses that we’ve seen before.”

While the latest data does not include statistics for overdose deaths in 2021, DHSS officials shared that in 2020, synthetic opioid overdose deaths increased by 165% from the previous year.

“(2020) was the worst year on record, next to 2017,” said Elana Habib with the state’s Office of Substance Misuse and Addiction Prevention during the video conference. “... We know that although Alaska and a lot of the Lower 48 experienced a big decrease in 2018 from overdose deaths, that started to go back up in 2019 and then 2020 has been a really rough year, not just for Alaska but for the rest of the Lower 48.”

Habib said a significant number of the deaths involved the substance fentanyl, which is known to be 50 times more powerful than heroin and 100 times more powerful than morphine, and is often laced with other drugs.

“I think there’s a lack of awareness that this is an issue,” Habib said.

DHSS officials cited the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium Substance Abuse Program as a resource for harm reduction and overdose prevention tools and training.

Supplies such as Narcan kits, fentanyl test strips and safe medication disposal resources can be ordered through program’s website, iknowmine.org.

Narcan, a brand name for Naloxone, is a nasal medication that can be administered by anyone in order to stop an overdose, and fentanyl test strips can be used by people who are experiencing addiction to find out whether their substance has been laced with fentanyl. The site also offers training videos on how to use the supplies.

“Harm reduction is really founded on the principles of respect and meeting people where they’re at, so rather than encouraging people to stop drug use immediately, it’s about creating a safer way to use those drugs and preventing immediate danger, including overdose,” said Dana Diehl, director of wellness and prevention at ANTHC, in a Friday interview. “... It’s also just recognizing people as humans.”

Diehl and DHSS officials said they hope people will consider carrying Narcan kits, regardless of whether they or someone they know is experiencing addiction.

“Narcan kits are for anyone,” Diehl said. “You don’t have to be a medical professional to use Narcan, you can actually just be a bystander and have it available in case you see someone that could be experiencing an overdose due to opioids.”

Public awareness about substance misuse, prevention and harm reduction can save lives, officials say, as they continue to look into what is causing the latest rash of overdoses in Alaska.

“We are definitely working strongly with our partners in the state, such as public safety as well as labs, to better understand what could be, whether it’s a trafficking issue or whatever else, what is it that’s going on in our state, but also just in general,” Habib said. “And, of course, you know, checking in to see is this, and how much, is this related to COVID in terms of isolation ... it’s still a question we’re trying to answer.”

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