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Heroin overdose deaths increase, officials wonder if it’s pandemic-related

Alaska and other states saw a decrease in opioid overdoses in 2018, an increase in 2019 and then a 165% spike in 2020.

Heroin-involved overdose deaths spiked statewide in 2020, and health officials are still investigating if the mental and physical isolation of the pandemic is to blame.

Elana Habib, an opioid misuse and addiction prevention specialist for the State Department of Health and Social Services, said during a press briefing last week that Alaska and other states saw a decrease in opioid overdoses in 2018, an increase in 2019 and then a 165% spike in 2020.

Habib said her department is working with partners across the state, including laboratories and public safety agencies, to understand the dramatic increase in heroin-involved overdose deaths last year and if it was COVID-related.

“We don’t know [the cause of the spike] because 2019 wasn’t great either, so it’s still a question we’re trying to answer,” she said.

Anna Frick, an epidemiologist and research analysis with the DHSS, said Alaska is one among many states experiencing similar trends.

“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,” she said during last week’s press briefing.

State Epidemiologist Joe McLaughlin cited an article from the Journal of the American Medical Association during the briefing, saying that general emergency room visits decreased during the pandemic, while non-fatal opioid overdose visits more than doubled.

The Change 4 the Kenai coalition has set various goals for preventing injection drug use on the central peninsula, including changing societal norms about drug use, increasing knowledge of the issue and distributing Naloxone kits to residents.

Naloxone, commonly known as Narcan, is a nasal spray or auto-injection medication designed to reverse the effects of an opioid overdose.

Habib said the statewide surge is often credited to the widespread use of fentanyl, an illicit opioid close to 100 times more powerful than morphine and 50 times more powerful than heroin.

“Oftentimes folks don’t realize the substance fentanyl is laced in their substances, and so this (2020) was the worst year on record next to 2017,” she said.

Psychostimulants — drugs that activate the central nervous system — and co-prescriptions of benzodiazepines — drugs that calm or sedate a person — are also shown to contribute to overdose deaths in the state, Habib said during the briefing.

One way the state is trying to combat drug overdose deaths is through increased accessibility of naloxone kits.

Habib said the use of naloxone could avert between 6% and 21% of overdose deaths. Multiple Alaskans have already benefited from naloxone.

“We also know from our own state that we have been able to reverse 309 overdoses as a result of the project HOPE naloxone that is distributed,” she said. “In Alaska there’s a lot that we’ve been doing and there’s a lot we can continue to do.”

Alaska’s Project HOPE’s mission is to reduce morbidity and mortality associated with opioid overdose.

There are 127 community partners in the state of Alaska who have already distributed over 42,000 naloxone kits, Habib said during the press briefing.

On the peninsula, the Change 4 the Kenai coalition had given out more than 1,500 to residents in Soldotna, Kenai, Nikiski, Sterling and Kasilof by the end of March 2021.

For opioid users, Habib emphasized the importance of not using more than the prescribed amount, having someone present while using, not mixing the opioids with other substances and testing the opioids with fentanyl test strips.

“It’s really important for those who are using illicit substances to test their substance for fentanyl,” she said. “This includes methamphetamine and cocaine and counterfeit pills because we know that fentanyl is being laced in these as well.”

Real-time addiction treatment availability can be accessed online at https://www.treatmentconnection.com/. A list of treatment providers can also be found at https://findtreatment.samhsa.gov/. For other addiction treatment assistance, call 800-662-HELP — or 800-662-4357.

Naloxone kits are available through local health care providers, by calling public health or emailing ProjectHOPE@alaska.gov.

“This fight is not over but we know we can make a big difference in it,” Habib said.

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

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