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State Gathers Input on Opioid Epidemic From Nome and Other Communities, Forming Response Plan

The Office of Substance Misuse and Addiction Prevention hosted a town hall meeting in Nome about the opioid epidemic. Photo Credit: Davis Hovey, KNOM (2018)

It’s been more than a year since Governor Walker declared a statewide disaster due to the ongoing opioid epidemic. Now, a group of experts with the Office of Substance Misuse and Addiction Prevention are gathering community input to formulate the State’s response plan.

Andy Jones is the director for Office of Substance Misuse and Addiction Prevention, as well as the deputy incident commander for the governor’s opioid response. Jones says there are three things he and his team look at when dealing with the state disaster regarding opioids.

“Loss of life, loss of property, and has the community exceeded their needs? And that takes a little bit of work for something like this disaster. I always say this disaster is kind of in the shadows, when we have flooding, in that it’s physically very present whereas this is not always physically present. And so when we did declare a disaster, one of the main reasons we did is because we got a grant and SB23 passed so we could actually distribute Narcan out, the lifesaving overdose drug, or naloxone is the medical term.”

Due to statutory limitations, Jones explains that his office couldn’t distribute Narcan or respond to the opioid epidemic like they can now, until after the Governor made the disaster declaration. Also, this is a better time for funding, says Michael Dickey, acting deputy director for Office of Substance Misuse and Addiction Prevention. According to Dickey, currently more federal dollars are being allocated and are now available for their office to use to address substance misuse, particularly opioids.

So now his team is working to educate communities as well as help them help themselves respond to the opioid crisis. Five employees with various offices and expertise under the Department of Health and Social Services hosted a roundtable discussion in Nome on Tuesday about opioids.

Hope Finkelstein, the program coordinator for the fetal alcohol spectrum disorder program, described the aspects of their visit to Nome prior to the town hall meeting.

“Much of what we’re doing here is not just to address what people can do to treat it, which is very important, and a very serious concern, but equally as important is how do we strengthen and bolster the support systems that exist in the community? How can we connect the dots with different resources?”

According to Finkelstein, from their other community meetings across the State, they’ve found that some local entities don’t know what others in their community are doing or how to take action against the opioid epidemic. During the Nome discussion, various community efforts like the Youth Checkpoint facility, Summercise program, the Katirvik Cultural Center’s programs, were all listed as options to help youth and adults stay busy and away from opioids.

In addition to community efforts, Jones says educating people about opioids and different factors of the epidemic is critical as the State puts together an action plan.

“Education is a big piece, just starting to understand the situation at hand, and, I think Hope said it, this isn’t the same drug, it doesn’t know social class, it’s affecting anybody and everybody right now. So the education piece is important, (and) removing the stigma with use. So how are we going to build a peer model in a community when there’s so much stigma sometimes with substance misuse as a whole, and those peers are really important, as the group said.”

And based on the Nome meeting, it would seem that there is a lack of education about opioids in the community, even though the awareness around the drugs has grown. According to a report from City Manager Tom Moran, one person has died from overdosing on Fentanyl in the community in recent months, and Norton Sound Health Corporation has reduced the amount of prescription opioids by 45%.

One of the other DHSS experts, Beth Wilson, mentioned how important peer support is and that the State will be investing in peer specialists. Wilson is the program coordinator for the integrated housing and services unit.

“We formed a steering committee, and what we’re going to do is we are going to create a credentialing for a peer support, statewide, so every community will have peer support specialists. So when people are coming back into the community, they’ll have peers there who are going to help them walk the walk, and help them through the system. So hopefully, we’ll have that up and running in a couple years.”

Although the Nome opioid crisis discussion only lasted for an afternoon, Jones and his team reiterate that the Office of Substance Misuse and Addiction Prevention will continue to host community meetings across the State through May. Once they gather all of that information, then that will be used to create the State’s action plan on the opioid epidemic.

Jones says there will be webinars to brief people around the State, and then summary documents will be distributed to each community.

Image at top: The Office of Substance Misuse and Addiction Prevention hosted a town hall meeting in Nome about the opioid epidemic. Photo: Davis Hovey, KNOM (2018).