A state announcement on Friday reinforced what many people in Ketchikan know — Alaska has an opioid problem.
The number of drug-overdose deaths jumped 68% this past year, going from 146 deaths in 2020 to 245 deaths in 2021, according to preliminary data cited in the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services announcement.
“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,” Dr. Anne Zink, Alaska’s chief medical officer, said in the statement.
And fentanyl certainly is present in Ketchikan. Since late December, at least nine individuals have been arrested in the Ketchikan area and charged in cases involving pills suspected to contain fentanyl, in addition to other drugs.
Discussions at the Ketchikan City Council and Ketchikan Gateway Borough have noted drug overdose deaths occurring in Ketchikan. Those conversations have been focused on understanding the scope of the issue locally, what resources exist to help the community’s response, and finding ways that the community can work further to address the multi-faceted situation.
One thing is clear. This is not unique to Ketchikan.
The state announcement noted “sharp surges” in drug overdose deaths being reported nationwide.
Here in this state, “It’s important to share this data broadly because while this deadly trend has become known in communities and regions like Mat-Su, Ketchikan and the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, it’s a danger in every Alaska community,” Zink said.
Perhaps a sign of the current impact of this high-potency substance is having on our communities is that the DHSS announcement wasn’t about enforcement or long-term treatment measures — it simply was about keeping people alive.
“We can save lives by ensuring you are only taking medications prescribed for you, seeking treatment if you are using illicit drugs, and for every Alaskan — but especially those at risk and their friends and family — carrying naloxone which can reverse an opioid overdose and provide a chance of recovery,” Zink said. “Fentanyl test strips are another important tool; they test for the presence of fentanyl in a pill or substance and are free and available here in Alaska.”
The announcement encouraged people to have Naloxone — a nasal spray that blocks the effects of opioids — in the home and to know how to use it.
DHSS has scheduled a public training Zoom webinar on how to administer Nalaxone and test for fentanyl from noon to 1 p.m. on Thursday. (People can attend the webinar by phone at (408) 638-0968, webinar ID 88169558455#). More information, including how to obtain free opioid response kits from the DHSS Project Hope, is available on the DHSS opioid information website at opioids.alaska.gov.
Given the situation, we appreciate that DHSS is providing information and resources to help curtail the loss of life from drug overdoses. We also appreciate the local community’s efforts toward addressing aspects of the drug situation, and for law enforcement’s efforts to curtail the flow of illegal substances into and through the community.
It’s humbling to comprehend the power of this illicit drug, and to know that there aren’t simple solutions. But, responses are occurring. Building with knowledge, understanding and perseverance, we make our way, one step at a time.