Alaska in Brief

Alaska tops nation in overdose death increase

By: - May 16, 2022 4:00 am
Sandy Snodgrass fights back tears as she described her the death of her son from a fentanyl overdose. She is one of several experts at a May 3 news conference in Wasilla on fentanyl abuse and efforts to combat it. (Photo by Yereth Rosen/Alaska Beacon)

Sandy Snodgrass fights back tears as she described her the death of her son from a fentanyl overdose. She is one of several experts at a May 3 news conference in Wasilla on fentanyl abuse and efforts to combat it. (Photo by Yereth Rosen/Alaska Beacon)

Alaska had the national biggest increase in drug overdose deaths in the past year, far outstripping rate increases in other states, the Centers for Disease Control reported.

A report from the CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics said Alaska had 75.3% more overdose deaths in 2021 than in 2020, compared to an national average of 14.9%. Alaska 2021 overdose deaths totaled 256, according to the preliminary statistics. Kansas had the second-highest rate of increase in overdose deaths, about 43%, according to the preliminary statistics released Wednesday.

State health officials say Alaska’s deaths are driven by fentanyl. That is a “highly concentrated, highly potent opioid” that can be legally prescribed but is also used illegally, Anne Zink, Alaska’s chief medical officer, said in Wednesday’s regular Department of Health and Social Services briefing.

“It’s about 50 times more potent than heroin, about 100 times more potent than morphine,” she said at the briefing hosted by the University of Alaska Anchorage’s Center for Human Development. “One pill can kill. A tiny little bit can kill people.

Alaska Health Commissioner Adam Crum, speaking at a Wasilla news conference on May 3, explains how fentanyl's extreme potency makes it possible for even a tiny dose to be fatal. (Photo by Yereth Rosen/Alaska Beacon)
Alaska Health Commissioner Adam Crum, speaking at a Wasilla news conference on May 3, explains how fentanyl’s extreme potency makes it possible for even a tiny dose to be fatal. Sandy Snodgrass, mother of a fentanyl victim, stands behind him.(Photo by Yereth Rosen/Alaska Beacon)

Potentially lethal doses have been found in four of every 10 counterfeit pills, and state officials are also finding fentanyl in drugs like heroin, cocaine and methamphetamine, she said.

One of the Alaska victims was 22-year-old Bruce Snodgrass of Anchorage, killed by an overdose in October.

At a recent news conference about fentanyl, Snodgrass’ mother fought back tears when describing her family’s tragedy.

Her son “had been such a beautiful Alaska boy” who was passionate about the outdoors and animals, Sandy Snodgrass said at the May 3 news conference hosted by Gov. Mike Dunleavy.

“He lived in nature, he belonged in nature, he belonged in Alaska. And he wanted to share that with other people. And fentanyl stole that from him,” she said.

The Department of Health and Social Services has a program devoted to opioid abuse. A statewide action plan was released in 2018, and the department tracks overdose emergencies and deaths.

Nationally, according to the newly released CDC statistics, overdose rates increased dramatically since the start of 2020. Previously, there had been an increase in overdose-death rates for the years leading up to the fall of 2017, but rates plateaued for a couple of years before resuming their climb.

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Yereth Rosen
Yereth Rosen

Yereth Rosen came to Alaska in 1987 to work for the Anchorage Times. She has been reporting on Alaska news ever since, covering stories ranging from oil spills to sled-dog races. She has reported for Reuters, for the Alaska Dispatch News, for Arctic Today and for other organizations. She covers environmental issues, energy, climate change, natural resources, economic and business news, health, science and Arctic concerns -- subjects with a lot of overlap. In her free time, she likes to ski and watch her son's hockey games.

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