Alaska News

Alaska’s fatal overdoses surged last year, a spike driven by fentanyl

The number of Alaskans dying from unintentional drug overdoses surged last year, a spike state officials attribute to fentanyl, the potent synthetic opioid that’s ravaging the state.

Alaska reported 245 overdose deaths in 2021, a staggering 68% increase over a single year, according to preliminary mortality data the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services released last week. There were 146 fatal overdoses reported in 2020.

Fentanyl’s lethal mark on Alaskans has prompted state health officials to start giving out free test strips that can help detect the substance as part of a new strategy that is somewhat controversial — the strips are illegal in some states under drug paraphernalia laws.

Nationally and in Alaska, the use of fentanyl has skyrocketed in recent years.

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The drug is easy to overdose on because of its extreme potency. Fentanyl is about 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine. It is sold either as pills, or added to street drugs like cocaine, meth and heroin because it’s cheap and produces a strong high.

It’s also extremely deadly, leading to a fifteen-fold increase in overdose deaths in Alaska over a three-year period. In 2018, just nine of the state’s fatal overdoses were linked to fentanyl.

Overdoses have been seen across Alaska, including Anchorage, the Mat-Su, Ketchikan and the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta. “This increase continues to be driven primarily by fentanyl, a very powerful opioid often found in counterfeit pills and a variety of illicit drugs, with six out of every 10 drug overdose deaths in Alaska involving fentanyl,” said Dr. Anne Zink, Alaska’s chief medical officer, in a written statement.

The state will host a free public training webinar Thursday from noon to 1 p.m. to demonstrate how to test for fentanyl using the strips and how to administer Narcan. The Zoom link is available online, or by calling 408- 638-0968.

In March, a particularly lethal batch of heroin that circulated in Mat-Su caused at least seven deaths and more than a dozen overdose emergencies. Authorities say fentanyl was likely to blame, though they won’t know that for sure until final toxicology reports come back.

People involved in substance abuse treatment and prevention say the recent spike in deaths has prompted a new interest in using fentanyl test strips, as well as training on the use of Narcan, a nasal spray that can be used to treat a known or suspected opioid overdose.

Kurt Hoenack, a client navigator at MyHouse Mat-Su Homeless Youth Center in Wasilla, said he tries to warn young people with addiction how risky it is to try any drugs given how prevalent fentanyl is right now and how little it takes to kill someone.

“The scary part is you just don’t know,” he said when asked if the “lethal batch” is still circulating.

Health officials say that Alaskans should not use more than the prescribed amount of prescription opioid. Officials also say Alaskans shouldn’t mix opioids with alcohol, methamphetamines or cocaine, and should test any illicit substance for fentanyl using test strips.

Officials also recommend that Alaskans check in on friends or loved ones who use drugs regularly, and they also recommend always carrying Narcan, which has been linked to a 93% survival rate for those experiencing overdoses.

If a person has overdosed, the person responding should call 911, administer CPR and then use Narcan.

For a list of organizations that can distribute Narcan kits and fentanyl testing strips, click here or email projectHOPE@alaska.gov.

Annie Berman

Annie Berman covers health care for the Anchorage Daily News. She's a fellow with Report for America, and is a graduate of the University of California Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. A veteran of AmeriCorps and Vista volunteer programs, she's previously reported for Mission Local and KQED in the Bay Area.

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