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Change 4 the Kenai outlines strategies for curbing injection drug use

Coalition goals include changing social norms, increasing knowledge and promoting connectedness with the community.

The Change 4 the Kenai Coalition met on Wednesday to discuss its upcoming goals for preventing injection drug use on the central peninsula, which include changing societal norms, increasing knowledge and promoting protective factors within the community.

Since the coalition reorganized in 2014, the primary focus has been on injection drug use. Members of the coalition include local and government agencies, law enforcement, businesses and peninsula community members.

According to data from the Alaska State Department of Health and Social Services, from 2010 to 2017 the opioid overdose death rate increased by 77%. Of the 37 synthetic opioid deaths in 2017 alone, fentanyl caused 28 — 76% — of them.

Shari Conner, the coalition coordinator of Change 4 the Kenai, said on Wednesday that the central peninsula’s overall state of awareness is vague, which means that “a few community members have at least heard about local efforts but know little about them.”

The areas encompassed in the outreach include Kenai, Soldotna, Nikiski, Kasilof and Sterling.

Conner said on Wednesday that the coalition’s three goals for 2021 are changing social norms associated with injection drug use, increasing knowledge of risks associated with injection drug use and promoting connectedness with the community to prevent injection drug use.

In order to change social norms about this issue, the coalition aims to increase bystander intervention on overdose education and how to use naloxone, also known as Narcan.

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, naloxone is a medication designed to reverse the effects of an opioid overdose. It is administered as a nasal spray or auto-injection.

Conner said from 2016-2019 the coalition’s goal was to distribute naloxone kits to 100 individuals. After the state adopted the coalition’s naloxone initiative and became a partner with Change 4 the Kenai, they were able to issue more. As of the end of March 2021, the coalition has given more than 1,500 naloxone boxes to central peninsula individuals.

The coalition hopes to increase the number of naloxone distribution sites this year due to a recent spike in opioid use on the peninsula, according to data cited by Conner.

“There’s a lot more overdoses due to the potency of the heroin,” she said on Wednesday, “so right now is not the time to stop with the distribution [of naloxone].”

Another way Conner suggested changing social norms about injection drug use is by increasing treatment referrals.

Medication-assisted treatment describes a “whole-patient” approach to therapy. It encompasses both the use of medication and behavioral counseling, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

Conner said on Wednesday that she hopes the coalition can provide peninsula residents who use injection drugs this kind of holistic treatment approach.

The third objective to reach the coalition’s goal of changing social norms is to promote recovery visibility. Conner said on Wednesday that she wants to focus on highlighting the stages of recovery, rather than the addiction itself.

“We want to see people getting a job … people getting their kids back,” she said, stressing the need to highlight “the positives about living in recovery.”

Along with changing social perception of injection drug use, Conner said the second goal of the coalition is to increase knowledge of the health risks associated with it.

In order to achieve this, she said, the coalition hopes to partner with primary care providers to disseminate information from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s “One and Only” campaign — an effort to increase awareness about safe injection practices — and provide safe needle disposal services.

The other way Change 4 Kenai hopes to increase awareness about the health risks of injection drug use is by partnering with public health to educate the community about hepatitis C and HIV prevention and testing.

The third goal the coalition discussed on Wednesday is to connect with the community in order to prevent injection drug use altogether.

Conner said the most concrete way to implement this would be to partner with local child care and family care providers to facilitate training sessions on prevention.

The coalition is working on implementing a curriculum on adverse childhood experiences and resilience-building activities in classrooms and doctors’ offices alike. She said they hope to identify children or families with high factors for adverse childhood experiences, emphasizing “it’s not something that’s wrong with you,” but rather “it’s something that happened to you.”

Last year, Conner said, the coalition set up calming corners in different early education classrooms, so kids could learn about their wide spectrum of emotions.

“Our coalition is still actively working [toward] building up our community, and … we have a place for everyone at the table to voice their input,” Conner said.

Change 4 Kenai is partnering with local businesses to put on educational scavenger hunts for the community every Saturday to discuss how safe neighborhoods and families foster a sense of safety in children. The clues are announced on the radio and the website.

The coalition will also do educational outreach at the Soldotna Wednesday Market this summer.

Those interested in volunteering with Change 4 Kenai can call Shari Conner at 907-714-4197.

Reach reporter Camille Botello at camille.botello@peninsulaclarion.com.

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