State to put opioid emergency kits in seafood plants and harbors across Southeast Alaska

A group of people packing medical supplies into red boxes
Public health nurses and volunteers fill opioid emergency kits in Junuea. June 10, 2022. (Claire Stremple/KTOO)

A group of about a dozen state health nurses and volunteers met in Juneau on Friday to assemble opioid emergency kits for fish processing plants in Southeast Alaska.

They’re red metal boxes full of the overdose-reversing drug naloxone, sharps containers, fentanyl test strips, rubber gloves and CPR masks.

The kits are part of a new state Department of Health and Social Services program to prevent opioid overdose deaths among industrial workers, starting with Southeast Alaska fisheries.

Sitka public health nurse Denise Ewing is spearheading the project. Its goals are raising awareness around opioid overdoses, educating people about the risks of fentanyl and providing industrial workers with overdose prevention resources.

The initiative is called Project Gabe. It’s named for Ewing’s son, Gabe Johnston, who died of an opioid overdose this January.

“Our son struggled with opioids for many years, and we went through that struggle with him,” she said.

Ewing’s partner and another one of her sons have both worked in seafood processing.

“When he passed, it was something that we wanted to do together,” said Ewing. “We’ve got to stop this — this is stoppable, but it’s going to take a long time — if I have to give a one-on-one education to every person.”

So Ewing decided to try to get her message out across the seafood industry.

She started in Sitka, where she’d build relationships with fish processing plants as a state nurse during the pandemic. She said at first she thought it would be hard to sell the idea because of the stigma that surrounds opioids and addiction. But processors and employees were on board.

Ewing educated new hires about opioids at their start-of-the-season orientation meetings. She talked about the risk of fentanyl, a potent and cheap synthetic opioid that’s been driving record overdose rates in the state.

After her talks, she said employees shared stories with her of the people that they knew who passed away from opioid abuse.

She mounted opioid emergency boxes with life-saving naloxone in the same locations at each plant.

A photo looking down into red boxes containing overdose prevention kits
Project Gabe will install opioid emergency kits in seafood processing plants in Southeast Alaska. June 10, 2022. (Claire Stremple/KTOO)

“Seafood processors kind of hop from seafood place to seafood place often. So we standardized it so that they knew that if they were in the galley, there was one in the galley. If they knew they were near the fish dock, there was one of the fish dock,” Ewing said.

Mike Duckworth Jr. is the plant manager for Silver Bay Seafood in Sitka. He said when Ewing reached out about Project Gabe, the idea “hit home” for him — a member of his extended family had overdosed, too.

He says there’s around 400 people working at his plant, and they haven’t needed one of the kits yet, but he’s glad to have them as a precaution.

“We absolutely do feel safer,” he said.

“This is my 25th year working in this industry. And I can say that I have been at other plants and facilities in Alaska that, you know, this would have saved somebody’s life.”

Duckworth says he’s expecting all Silver Bay plants in the state to adopt the program.

Juneau Public Health Nurse Sarah Hargrave helped pack boxes with the volunteer crew. She wants to see that success spread across the region.

“What we’re doing now is trying to expand that work regionally. Our goal is to have these mounted and standardized places in seafood processors, and also with docks and harbors across Southeast,” she said.

The group filled about 150 boxes. Some will stay in Juneau, others will go to places like Cordova, Tenakee Springs, Pelican and Gustavus.

The state plans to expand the program to other regions and industries in the future.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled Gabe Johnston’s last name.

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