The state government is gearing up for a major battle against the opioid epidemic sweeping through Alaska.
Andy Jones, the Section Chief for the state Department of Health and Social Services, is heading up a new statewide program to get the drug Naloxone, also known by its commercial name Narcan, into the hands of heroin users, no matter where they live, be it the cities or the bush.
Alaska recently received a $4.2 million grant for a five-year “Project Hope” program from the federal government’s Department of Health and Human Services.
“What that equates to is about 5,000 of these lifesaving kits every year,” Jones said.
Jones said it was a fight just getting the funds, because the opioid epidemic is not only here, but also in the lower 48, where the number of deaths far exceeds those dying from heroin overdoses in Alaska.
“If you look at one or two or three deaths, people in the Lower 48 look at that as that’s not significant, but that’s not true,” Jones said. “That’s really significant to that community because they have a smaller population and they know each other. Those are their loved ones. And so we won that battle, which is exciting.
Since getting the money two and a half months ago, Jones’s team has developed kits with education and training materials and a simple drug delivery system to keep people alive when they are overdosing.
“You know if you ever have an allergy and you squirt up some sort of anti-allergy up your nose, we’re all familiar with that, right? It’s very easy, the same concept. I actually taught my 3-year-old daughter how to use it. And when I did that, it was like…’This is it,’” said Jones.
This system, provided free through Project Hope, is not cheap. Buying it at a pharmacy costs $150 per dose. The same drug delivered through a needle costs a lot less: $20 to $30 per dose.
“It’s horrible, outrageous. Unfortunately it’s the pharmaceutical community,” Jones said.
If Project Hope had been operating last summer, the overdose death in Quinhagak might have been avoided. Jones wants to work with health organizations, community groups, tribes, or anyone willing to help get the medicine to heroin drug users when they need it.
But keeping users alive is only the first step toward getting them into a recovery program. Here, Alaska has a long way to go. There are nowhere near enough detox programs. The waiting list for those that exist is long. Most would have to leave the state for that service, and that’s only the beginning. Because once off the drug, users need counseling and community support to help keep them on the road to recovery. That is a much larger community challenge that has just begun in Alaska and has not reached the bush yet in any significant way.
Public health nurses meeting in Anchorage this week were looking at community programs in Juneau and the Matanuska Susitna Borough, along with a web-based support system called “Rockstar” out of Ohio, where former heroin users help others get clean and stay clean.