The Kenai Peninsula Borough is among the counties leading the nation in per-capita opioid prescriptions, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
A data set published July 7 shows the Kenai Peninsula Borough in the top tier of counties with opioids prescribed per capita in morphine milligram equivalents, a unit of measure. Many areas in Alaska don’t have enough data to quanify, but the Kenai Peninsula is the highest in Alaska, followed by the Matanuska-Susitna Valley area and parts of Southeast Alaska, according to the CDC’s map.
Opioids, a generic term for a class of drugs that relieve pain including prescription drugs such as Vicodin and Oxycontin but also including non-prescription substances such as heroin and fentanyl, have been at the center of an nationwide addiction crisis for the last several years.
Prescription rates have declined in many areas between 2010 and 2015, the study notes, but trends vary from county to county. A map distributed by the CDC shows counties with very high rates of prescription juxtaposed with others that had much lower rates, or dense pockets of counties with high prescription rates that drop of immediately into lower prescription rate areas.
“From 2010 to 2015, half of counties in the United State experienced reductions in the amount of opioids prescribed, with substantial decreases in certain states,” the CDC’s report states. “… Despite reductions, the amount of opioids prescribed in 2015 remained high relative to 1999 levels and varied substantially across the country … larger amounts were prescribed in micropolitan counties and in counties with a higher prevalence of diagnosed diabetes and arthritis.”
Opioid prescriptions per capita peaked in 2010, reaching 78 morphine milligram equivalents per capita, but have declined to about 640 MME per capita in 2015. The communities with the highest prescription rates still tend to be primarily white, rural communities and higher unemployment, according to the CDC.
Within Alaska, the overdose rate from opioids was more than double the national average, and 774 drug overdose deaths were reported between 2009 and 2015, according the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services. Heroin overdose deaths have been declining since 2010, though overall opioid deaths have been relatively stable since 2010, increasing in 2015.
Gov. Bill Walker has taken several steps in recent months to strengthen state efforts to battle the opioid crisis. In the spring, he declared a public health disaster in the state for the opioid crisis. On Wednesday, Walker’s office announced he would donate $11,000 from his salary to support the Wasilla Police Department’s effort for a new K9 drug detection dog to replace one that was euthanized because of cancer.
“Building a Safer Alaska is my administration’s top priority, which is why I declared a disaster on the opioid epidemic so the state can prioritize response,” Walker said in a press release. “Key to that response is prevention, and drug dogs are an important component of that.”
Police departments have stepped up as well. Kenai Police Department officers were recently trained on how to use an overdose-rescue drug called naloxone or Narcan to rescue people who are in overdose, giving them extra time to make it to the hospital for treatment. It’s not new — first responders have been carrying the kits for decades — but police officers are new to the ranks of those carrying them, funded by a grant from the federal government to purchase the kits for distribution all over the state.
Local groups are also taking on the challenge. Change 4 the Kenai, a community organization that works to reduce drug abuse in the central Kenai Peninsula, has been running seminars for medical providers and Narcan training through Community Overdose Prevention Education classes, said Shari Conner, one of the group’s organizers. They’re looking into other efforts as well.
“The one that we’re looking at doing is expanding and being more supportive of the drug take-back days and easier disposal sites for community members so there isn’t ununsed medications in the community,” she said.
The group is also working on plans for community events in recognition of September as overdose awareness month, including repeating an awareness walk that took place last year. Details are still in the works, she said.
Central Peninsula Hospital is also in the final stages of prep work before opening two facilities related to drug addiction: one detox facility, called Care Transitions, and one transitional living facility for those who have already completed a 30-day substance abuse treatment course at Serenity House.
Both facilities are on Tyee Street in Soldotna, close to the hospital’s main campus, and the hospital hopes to open Care Transitions by the end of the month, said Bruce Richards, the external and government affairs manager for the hospital. It could stretch into August, depending on whether the hospital can staff the facility in time, he said.
“It’s getting the staff piece in place,” he said. “It’s proving a little more difficult, taking a little more time.”
The transitional living facility is planned to open shortly after that, in September, he said.
Reach Elizabeth Earl at firstname.lastname@example.org.