Events, Featured, Health

Have Opioids Hit Seward? Town Hall Meeting Oct 24 to Address Epidemic

by Kelley Lane for Seward City News-
Deaths due to drug overdose are on the rise, up 60.9% since 2007, for a total of 123 deaths statewide in 2016, according to the Alaska Vital Statistics Report. Photo courtesy of Alaska Dept of Health & Social Services.

On Tuesday night, Seward will host a Town Hall about opioids. The meeting will take place at the High School, with a panel of experts. The event is being hosted and paid for by Seward Prevention Coalition, in collaboration with its many supporters. Casey Warner will open the event by talking about a “topic that’s close to my heart:” the story of her sister, Tori’s struggle with opioids. Casey, along with her sister, Tori, grew up in Seward, attending the public schools here. Tori was a “good kid,” involved in school and on the basketball team. In her senior year, she “broke up with her boyfriend, started drinking alcohol and then slid into using cocaine, meth and was using heroin by the time that she asked [her family] for their help.” Tori’s story illustrates a pattern that has been developing in Seward and around the state.

One hundred and twenty-three Alaskans died in 2016 from drug overdoses according to the 2016 Alaska Vital Statistics Annual Report. This figure is an increase of 60.9% since 2007. Many of these deaths were caused by opioid drugs, either in the form of heroin or prescription painkillers. Alaskans who lost their lives to drug overdoses tended to be young. The report estimates each of these people would likely have lived another 34.3 years had it not been for their overdose.  Alaska also experienced twice the national rate of prescription opioid overdose deaths in 2012. Our rate of heroin overdose deaths was 50% higher than the national rate in the same year.

Governor Bill Walker issued a disaster declaration for opioid usage in February of this year. According to Katie Cornwell, of the Seward Prevention Coalition, “the intent was to get more resources to communities, families and schools, and to allow for Narcan distribution without a prescription.” Narcan, or Naloxone, is a medication used to prevent a person having an opioid overdose from going into respiratory arrest. Walker’s declaration has allowed for funds to educate members of the public on how to use the medication, and make it more readily available. In July of this year, Walker signed House Bill 159 into law. The bill limits new opioid prescriptions to seven days worth of pills and requires training on signs of opioid abuse for medical providers.

The Seward Town Hall was developed by The Seward Health Care Collaborative, which meets monthly to discuss health related issues. They collectively decided that a Town Hall would be the best medium for educating Sewardites about the increasing problem with opioid addiction. Katie Cornwell spearheaded the organizational efforts. “We think it’s important for as many people in our community to attend this town hall as possible because [it gives us] a better chance of combating [the epidemic] early.”

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Cornwell arranged for Dr. Jay C. Butler, the Chief Medical Officer and Director of the Division of Public health to be among the presenters at Tuesday’s town hall. Dr. Butler heads the Alaska Opioid Task Force and will share signs and symptoms of addiction. Andy Jones, Chief of Rural and Community Health Systems is another presenter. Dr. Jerald Flynn, of Seward, will share his local knowledge of what opioid addiction looks like here. The fourth panelist is Shari Conner, of Change 4 the Kenai, a task force based out of Soldotna. They are working on the opioid epidemic with a variety of approaches, such as needle exchange and educating medical providers on what addiction looks like.

The format for Tuesday’s Town Hall will be a community dinner, followed by presentations and then a question and answer session. The event will begin at 5:30 pm, with Indian tacos provided by the Qutekcak Native Tribe and desserts by a local non profit. The presentations will begin at 6:30pm in the high school auditorium, with Casey Warner speaking, and last for about an hour. The question and answer session will follow the presentations. Childcare will be provided by Seward Parks and Recreation Department and is being paid for by Seward Prevention Coalition.

In 2015 Seward conducted a health needs assessment, surveying 671 Seward locals. This assessment helped determine how local organizations would direct their prevention and health related efforts. One startling discovery was that “26.1% [of respondents] believe recreational use of prescription drugs is acceptable.” In the face of this belief, there exists a scarcity of resources to address addiction when it occurs. This was one of the struggles for Warner’s sister, Tori, who “went to rehab in North Carolina, because there are so few rehab beds here in Alaska.” Even amongst the rehab facilities that do exist in Alaska, most of them are set up to treat alcohol, not opioid addiction.

Casey Warner talked with her sister Tori just last week. Tori is doing well with her recovery and has been sober for 10 months. Warner’s experience with her sister, in addition to reading recent scientific research, has convinced her that “addiction is not a behavioral problem, it’s a mental illness.” She wants to help change our cultural and societal depiction of addiction. Warner wants to help move us towards a model in which we treat addiction like other illnesses, “like a broken bone, or depression.” Warner has chosen to step up and tell her family’s story as her way of helping us move in that direction.

Tuesday’s Town Hall meeting will be held at Seward High School, located at 2100 Swetmann Avenue, starting at 5:30pm.

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