ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) — Health officials said Alaska has been experiencing a significant increase in opioid-related overdoses since March, with last week being one of the worst in the state.
Elana Habib, with the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services’ office of substance misuse and addiction prevention, said last week brought one of the “worst spikes we’ve seen in several years” across three different regions: Anchorage area, Southeast region and Gulf Coast region.
Habib said during a public information call this week that the average number of overdoses a week since March is almost three times as high as the weekly average for 2019 and 2020.
Habib also noted that majority of the overdoses in the last week involved heroin, but there are usually up to three other substances involved in overdoses.
Anna Frick, an epidemiologist with the state health department, said the spike is unusual and concerning.
“We’re hitting new records, and the average is substantially above what we’d expect,” Frick said, citing emergency room visits and needs analysis data.
She has attributed the increase in overdoses to a number of factors, including a different group of people using heroin and a different type of heroin, maybe stronger or laced with something else, the Anchorage Daily News reported.
“We aren’t exactly sure, but we think it’s important people know about this, so if they were planning on using heroin, they can try to do so more safely with a fully formed awareness that what they’re getting might not be what they’re expecting,” Frick said.
It is currently too soon to know how many overdoses resulted in death, she said. But instead health officials point to data from 2020, which show synthetic opioid overdose deaths rose by 165% from the year prior.
Habib said a significant number of the deaths last year 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. Habib said it is possible fentanyl was involved in recent overdoses.
Health officials are continuing to share preventive measures, including directing people to the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium Substance Abuse Program where residents can order fentanyl test strips and Narcan kits. Narcan, a brand name for Naloxone, is a nasal medication that can be administered by anyone in order to stop an overdose.
“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,” Program Director Dana Diehl told Alaska’s News Source.