A Community Response to an Opioid Epidemic

  • Stephanie Stillwell

The conversations began in 2015 with a public lecture at Kachemak Bay Campus called “Heroin Hits Homer: The Facts about Heroin.” This panel of local subject matter experts featured discussions about the impact of heroin on our community. One panelist was Dr. Sarah Spencer, D.O., a local physician who is board certified in addiction medicine. Dr. Spencer currently provides medication assisted treatment for substance use disorders at Ninilchik Traditional Council Community Clinic.

Outside of clinic responsibilities, Dr. Spencer began providing Narcan (naloxone) overdose prevention training throughout the community, and worked with a team of local agencies and community members to open Homer’s first needle exchange, simply called The Exchange, which opened its doors in June 2016. This harm reduction program continues to provide folks with clean needles, and offers testing for Hepatitis C and HIV as well as providing support for people to access additional health and social service resources. The Exchange continues to open its doors every other Tuesday from 5 p.m. – 7 p.m. at the South Peninsula Hospital Training Center on Pioneer Avenue.

In February 2017 Governor Bill Walker announced a 30-day Disaster Declaration to allow statewide Narcan distribution. Alaska received a $4.2 million grant from the federal government’s Department of Health and Human services that was used to fund Project HOPE (Harm reduction, Overdose Prevention, and Education). The Project HOPE program offers lifesaving Narcan overdose prevention kits to those at risk for an overdose and for family and friends of those at risk. Since the disaster declaration and the funding for Project HOPE, more Narcan kits have been made available to folks on the Kenai Peninsula. Before the initiation of Project HOPE, Dr. Spencer was providing nearly all of the education for overdose prevention on the peninsula, but the cost of the lifesaving medication was $90 per kit. Because of the funding through Project HOPE, Dr. Spencer has since been able to provide free Narcan kits and overdose prevention education to many more folks on the peninsula and on the south side of Kachemak Bbay. Narcan kits from Project HOPE are also available at The Exchange and at the Homer Public Health Center.

As Homer continued to see a rise in local families affected by substance use disorders, local providers and nurses at South Peninsula Hospital were eager to help. Obstetric nurses and midwives noticed an increase in high risk families with substance use disorders and started to ask questions about what local resources are available for these families and what can they do to help. The hospital created an internal working group that focused on finding solutions for these high risk families and invited people from other community agencies to help. The efforts of this group, in conjunction with MAPP, prompted a meeting of more than 30 local agencies to discuss the impact of opioids and heroin on their agency as well as resources available and agency needs.

This collective dialogue inspired a community presentation and conversation about responding to opioid addiction in our community. Andy Jones, Director of Alaska’s Office of Substance Misuse and Addiction Prevention, joined the local panel of subject matter experts and together the community addressed decreasing stigma surrounding addiction, honored stories of addiction and recovery, highlighted local resources as well as the state’s response plan.

All of these community conversations led to the formation of a local team that specifically aims to address local issues surrounding substance misuse. As part of MAPP, the Southern Kenai Peninsula (SKP) Opioid Task Force was formed and includes many people from community agencies as well as local government, community members and is open to the public. The task force looks more closely at local solutions and resources, focuses on education and outreach, assessment and data collection, and volunteer mobilization. The SKP Opioid Task Force meets every fourth Wednesday of the month at the South Peninsula Training Center.

The next community conversation hosted by the State of Alaska in conjunction with MAPP of the Southern Kenai Peninsula and the SKP Opioid Task Force, titled “Your Voice, Your Community,” will take place on Wednesday, March 7, from noon-5 p.m. at Land’s End Resort. The state of Alaska’s Office of Substance Misuse and Addiction Prevention is looking to collect local input from our community to bring to state level planning. This event is open to the public and all are encouraged to join to let your voice be heard.

To get more involved in the SKP Opioid Task Force, email skpopioidtaskforce@gmail.com. For more information about The Exchange, please email homerexchange@gmail.com.

Stephanie Stillwell, RN, BSN, has worked as a Public Health Nurse for the State of Alaska and now works for Ninilchik Traditional Council Community Clinic. She is active in local community health and wellness coalitions.

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