Dramatic spike in heroin overdoses prompt health alert from DHSS

Heroin overdoses in Alaska have more than doubled in the past year, according to recently released data from the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services (DHSS). A public health alert from the department indicates heroin overdose emergency department visits are up statewide but are particularly focused in Anchorage/Mat-Su, Southeast, and the Gulf Coast.


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“During March 1 through May 29, 2021, approximately 113 ED visits involved a heroin diagnosis; 70 (62%) of these patients were male, and the median age of patients was 34 years (range: 18–66 years).”

Last week DHSS announced the state had experienced a 165% spike in overdose deaths in 2020.


Image: Alaska Department of Health and Social Services


The reasons for this dramatic increase are still unknown, but there seems to be a wide range of potential causes. The CDC in December reported an increase in overdose deaths that coincided with health safety measures implemented across the country to stop the spread of COVID-19. 

Other factors more unique to illicit drug use may also be at work, says DHSS.

“…possibilities could include an increase in the supply, purity, or potency of available heroin. Other reasons may include reduced tolerance at the time of use and a change in the method of use (e.g., injection versus inhalation). Many heroin-involved overdoses also include additional substances, often unknown to the user, such as fentanyl and methamphetamine.”

Part of the reason for the public health alert, says DHSS, is to inform clinicians about the increase in overdose emergency department visits, and offer information on how to prevent overdoses and overdose deaths. 

The department makes several recommendations relying heavily on expanding the availability and use of naloxone among those who are currently using illicit opioids, individuals with a history of overdose, those who are currently receiving prescription opioids, and individuals who may have reduced tolerance after a long period of abstinence.

A range of other recommendations have also been made centered around access:

“Integrate screening, referral, and linkage to care for those you serve, with a particular emphasis on using peer-support specialists; this includes emergency departments, emergency responders, primary care providers, and community-based organizations.”