Alaska News

Alaska supplies of a lifesaving overdose medication ran low for weeks amid a spike in opioid deaths

Most of the Alaska health department’s supply of Narcan, a prescription medication that can quickly reverse the effects of an opioid overdose, ran out over a month ago, making it harder for the public to get access.

Health officials, who say new shipments arriving this week should help relieve the problem, blamed a combination of factors. They include a miscalculation on the state’s part of how much of the medication to order, shipping delays and rising demand linked to a recent spike in opioid deaths.

The shortage of Narcan — also called naloxone — comes amid a surge in fatal overdoses in Alaska over the last year, some linked to fentanyl circulating in lethal amounts.

The Alaska Department of Health and Social Services, through a program called Project HOPE, distributes rescue kits with naloxone to more than 100 agencies across the state, according to Karol Fink, a section chief with the state’s Division of Public Health.

Those free kits include fentanyl test strips, gloves and instructions on how to administer Narcan. Thirty-nine of those agencies have pending orders, Fink said.

Some of the agencies still have the medication on hand, she said, or have been able to supplement their supplies from other sources.

There’s also no shortage of Narcan supplies used by emergency responders with the Anchorage Fire Department, officials there say.

The state received seven pallets of the medication on a barge this week, and Fink said the state should be able to assemble the kits and fill all orders by the end of the month.

The Interior AIDS Association in Fairbanks has been running low on the kits typically supplied by Project HOPE since the beginning of the year, according to Maya Bowers, who works in prevention outreach.

The organization hasn’t completely run out of Narcan — they were able to get a small stock from Fairbanks’ public health center and the Fairbanks Native Association, Bowers said.

Still, they haven’t gotten a full shipment from the state in months.

“Narcan has always been a big need,” she said. “But definitely with recent overdose rates rising that is more important that we have that.”

A recent surge in requests for overdose kits due to a spike in opioid-related deaths is part of the reason for the shortage, state officials say.

The state ran out of “the bulk of” its Narcan kits in mid-March, around the time a particularly lethal batch of heroin that circulated in Mat-Su caused at least seven deaths and more than a dozen overdose emergencies. That drove up demand in the Mat-Su in particular, Fink said.

Naloxone has an expiration date, so the state didn’t want to order more than was needed, she added.

“And I think we just did not make an accurate prediction of how many new agencies were going to join us, what kind of requests were going to look like, and how quickly we could get the naloxone,” she said.

It often takes weeks for a shipment of naloxone to arrive in Alaska, she said.

“We hope it hasn’t had too big of an impact,” she said. “But it’s super concerning from a health standpoint.”

The number of Alaskans dying from unintentional drug overdoses surged last year, a spike state officials attribute to fentanyl, a potent synthetic opioid that’s about 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine and extremely easy to overdose on.

Alaska reported 245 overdose deaths in 2021, a staggering 68% increase over a single year. There were 146 reported fatal overdoses in 2020.

So far this year, the crisis has shown no sign of slowing. Anchorage Fire Department paramedics and emergency responders administered Narcan for suspected overdoses 65 times from the start of January through the end of March, according to data provided by the department.

They’ve also responded to 43 calls where Narcan had already been administered in a suspected overdose during the same time period.

In Anchorage, Venus Woods, a director with the Alaskan Aids Assistance Association, said the nonprofit has been out of Narcan for at least a couple weeks.

The agency, better known as 4As, is a major supplier of overdose rescue supplies in the city.

Woods has worked with the nonprofit for three years, and this is only the second time they have run out of Narcan, she said. The organization typically hands out the medication as part of its syringe exchange, a program that offers sterile injection supplies.

Woods provided clients with a list of local agencies that might still have some of the kits in the stock.

“I think our participants are also their own community, and I think that they help each other out when when our supply is low,” she said.

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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