Alaska overdoses and deaths rise, as global pandemic overshadows state opioid epidemic

A blue pill near a ruler.
The counterfeit oxycodone tablet actually contained fentanyl. (Courtesy of Alaska Dept. of Health and Social Services.)

Drug overdoses in Alaska have continued to increase in recent years, overshadowed by the coronavirus pandemic.

So far this year, the state’s emergency departments have seen about 480 opioid overdoses, compared to 660 in 2020 and roughly 480 for all of 2019, according to data from the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services.

Last year, Alaska had 146 opioid overdose deaths, the most ever reported. This year’s numbers are not yet out because of delays in getting information from death certificates, due to a cyberattack on the state health department.

The state declared opioid abuse a public health emergency in 2017.

The recent increases in overdoses and deaths came as a surprise, because the numbers had declined briefly in 2018, said Elana Habib, a state opioid misuse and addiction prevention specialist.

“I think there was a lot of optimism,” Habib said. “And now with this increase in 2019 and an even bigger increase in 2020, it’s a little alarming.”

Over the same time period, fentanyl overdose deaths tripled, Habib said. In some cases, people don’t know the powerful opioid is in the drugs they’re using, she said.

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Along with distributing overdose-reversing Naloxone and training people on how to use it, the state is also offering free fentanyl test strips to users, Habib said.

Still, public health personnel and resources have been more focused on COVID-19 recently, she said.

“And that’s going to take away from any other thing that’s happening, because it does take precedence, because of the significant mortality and morbidity from COVID,” she said. “But, unfortunately, I think we need to look at how they’re all interrelated and address them simultaneously.”

For example, Habib pointed to research on the national level that shows those diagnosed with opioid use disorder are 10 times more likely to get COVID-19. That’s likely due to less access to information and health care, among other disparities, she said.

Meanwhile, Tuesday was International Overdose Awareness Day.

“Everyone plays a role and fighting overdose,” Habib said. “Deaths from overdoses are 100 percent preventable.”

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Casey Grove is host of Alaska News Nightly and a general assignment reporter at Alaska Public Media. cgrove [at] alaskapublic (dot) org | 907.550.8446 | About Casey

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