Bristol Bay residents and state staff discuss opioid epidemic

Feb 6, 2018

Last week, the Bristol Bay Opioid Task Force and Alaska's Department of Health and Social Services held a meeting in Dillingham . At the meeting, Bristol Bay residents weighed in on how the state should next respond to the opioid epidemic.

Credit Avery Lill/ KDLG

Representatives from the Alaska’s Department of Health and Human Services are traveling the state over the next several months. They are inviting input from at least 15 communities on next steps for tackling the opioid epidemic, which Governor Bill Walker declared a public health crisis about a year ago. Last week DHSS and the Bristol Bay Opioid Task Force hosted a meeting in Dillingham.

Several dozen people showed up to the Dillingham Bingo Hall to discuss how Bristol Bay is responding to the opioid epidemic.  Posters at the front of the room cited statistics:  The number of people reporting heroin use in the U.S. more than doubled between 2007 and 2013. The number of heroin-associated deaths in Alaska quadrupled between 2009 -2016.

The meeting was about more than statistics. It was about the very tangible impact of drug use visible in Bristol Bay’s communities.

“Our elders tell us to love one another. And we have an epidemic in our villages, but these are our people, and these are our loved ones,” said Anna May Kasak, mayor of Togiak.  “And through love we can get things done together.”

Credit Avery Lill/ KDLG

The participants broke into four groups to discuss broad topics, including the effects they see of opioid misuse, existing efforts to combat it and social perception of opioid use and addiction. The meeting allowed Bristol Bay residents to share on-the-ground perspective and to make suggestions for a state response.

Andy Jones is director of the newly established DHSS office of Substance Misuse and Addiction Prevention. He explained that, by holding these meetings in Dillingham and other Alaskan towns, DHSS aims to develop a strategic plan that is responsive to community input.

“Instead of writing something back home in a silo, we’re not even starting to write it,” said Jones. “What we’ve done is we’ve taken some key foundational elements, and we’re using those as discussion topics, and then we’re going to hopefully build by May. We’ll have a long-term strategic plan or action plan that’s been built by the communities.”

In addition to shaping a statewide strategic plan, these meetings also allow the state to assist communities in developing their own addiction prevention and treatment strategies.

“Togiak said, ‘We want peer recovery training. We want somebody who can teach us about sober living housing.’ So after this meeting we’re going to link up, and we’re going to fly a few experts out to give Togiak the training they are asking for,” said Jones.

The other communities DHSS has already met with this spring include Ketchikan, Prince of Wales Island and Sitka.

Contact the author at or 907-842-5281.

Credit KDLG/ Avery Lill