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Overdose Deaths Increase by 49% in Ky.; NKY's Age-Adjusted Mortality Rate High

Kentucky saw an increase of 49% in drug overdose deaths in 2020 compared to 2019, the Kentucky Justice and Public Safety Cabinet and Office of Drug Control Policy announced Tuesday.

The state, with 1,964 overdose deaths, follows a national trend.

The U.S. saw more than 93,000 overdose deaths in 2020, the highest number ever recorded in a 12-month period.

According to resident cases autopsied by the Kentucky Office of the Medical Examiner and toxicology reports submitted by Kentucky coroners, the increase in the death toll was driven mostly by a rise in opioid abuse, fentanyl and fentanyl analogues, which were found in 1,393 cases, accounting for approximately 71% of all overdose deaths for the year.

“In addition to the stress caused by the pandemic, we believe the increase in overdose deaths for 2020 is due to a rise in illicit fentanyl and its analogues within the drug supply. The problem is also exacerbated by the widespread availability of potent, inexpensive methamphetamine,” said Van Ingram, executive director of ODCP. “ODCP is committed to changing the way substance abuse is handled in Kentucky, reducing the problem and making the commonwealth a model for other states.” 

Northern Kentucky counties also saw an increase in overdose deaths, year over year. The largest increase in resident overdose fatalities occurred in Jefferson County (Louisville), where deaths increased by 193. Other counties with increases include Fayette by 51, Clark by 20, Campbell by 18, and Boone by 16.

Boone County saw the fourth-most fentanyl-related deaths in the state with 38 while Kenton County saw the third-most methamphetamine deaths with 15.

Overall, the state's 1,964 overdose deaths indicates an age-adjusted mortality rate of statewide of 46.18.

Grant County (76.71), Kenton County (52.69), and Campbell County (54.73) all had higher rates than the state average. Boone Co. was slightly lower at 38.76.

Click here to view the 2020 Overdose Fatality Report, which was compiled with data from the Kentucky Office of the Medical Examiner, the Kentucky Injury Prevention & Research Center, and the Kentucky Office of Vital Statistics.

Justice and Public Safety Cabinet Secretary Kerry Harvey, appointed by Gov. Andy Beshear on Monday, made it a priority starting with his first day in office to play a crucial role in creating a better and safer Kentucky by pledging his commitment to work alongside state, local and federal agencies to end the devastating drug epidemic.

“Winning the fight against the opioid epidemic is a top priority of mine as Secretary of the Justice and Public Safety Cabinet,” said Harvey. “The Cabinet will continue to build upon its current initiatives with a focus on becoming a visionary leader for the nation as we work tirelessly to help steer Kentuckians away from falling victim to substance use, and saving our communities from losing more loved ones and citizens.”

The Beshear administration has awarded grant funding across the commonwealth to increase access to treatment services and recovery programs. State efforts include programs targeted at reducing addiction, preventing re-incarceration, increasing the distribution of the life-saving drug naloxone and removing barriers to treatment.

“One life lost to an overdose death is one too many. This past year has been devastating—between the battle against the global COVID-19 pandemic and the opioid crisis, Kentucky has been hit hard,” said Beshear. “Now more than ever, we need every resource and everyone working together to stop this scourge, which continues to shatter families and ravage our communities.”

One of several steps was signing House Bill 7 into law to ensure that communities are recovery-ready by having resources in place, such as employment, transportation, recovery meetings and support groups, a news release said.

“Recovery is enhanced, overdoses are avoided and recidivism is decreased when vital resources are available where people live and work,” said Beshear. “This legislation makes certain that high-quality recovery programs are available in all of Kentucky’s 120 counties, which will help us save more lives.”

“I am excited for this council to get to work! These members represent a wide spectrum of interests throughout our commonwealth who recognize that we must have an organized, collaborative approach to effectively fight substance abuse,” said Rep. Adam Bowling (R), the primary sponsor of House Bill 7 who represents Bell County and part of Harlan County. “They come from diverse backgrounds, from business and workforce, to health and local government, to corrections and law enforcement, and individuals in recovery. Yet all realize the importance and value of engaging our communities to seek local options for prevention, treatment and recovery from the substance use epidemic.”

In 2020, ODCP awarded more than $23 million in grant funding to 21 programs across the commonwealth to increase access to treatment services and recovery programs, and to help retain employment for persons in recovery seeking employment and job training.

By the end of 2022, ODCP estimates that over a three-year period the office will have awarded more than $69 million in grant funding across the commonwealth, focused on aiding all Kentuckians in need of recovery help and preventing future generations from falling prey to addiction.

“The commonwealth is continuing to take many aggressive steps to end this crisis by using a multi-disciplinary approach with a team comprised of health care experts, law enforcement, advocates, and public policy experts,” said Ingram. “Kentucky cannot continue to lose our citizens to overdoses, which not only causes thousands of families heartbreak but brings devastation to our communities. There is no simple answer to how we combat this public health crisis, but we must treat addiction as a medical issue, not just a criminal issue.”

“Deaths attributed to overdose in 2020 are a somber reminder that the opioid epidemic continues to deeply impact our commonwealth and reaffirms our commitment to the investments we have made in opioid response. We know that we must continue to expand what is working, which includes community-based overdose prevention and harm reduction initiatives,” said Cabinet for Health and Family Services (CHFS) Secretary Eric Friedlander. “To date, we have distributed over 70,000 naloxone kits, saving thousands of lives. Opioid response is complex and our success will be dependent on our willingness to unite in a shared responsibility to end the stigma and discrimination against substance use disorders and build an equitable system of care that engages and empowers individuals and their families to lead healthy, fulfilling lives.”

In 2019, Kentucky was selected by the National Institutes of Health and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration as one of only four states to participate in the “HEALing Communities Study,” the largest implementation-science study ever undertaken in the United States to reduce overdose death at the community level. The study is being completed in partnership with ODCP and the University of Kentucky.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has added unexpected complexity to this project, but the pandemic did not alter the commitment of our communities, the state and our partner agencies to respond urgently to this devastating crisis,” said Dr. Sharon Walsh, PhD, Director of the Center on Drug and Alcohol Research at the University of Kentucky. “We are currently deploying a comprehensive set of evidence-based practices using a multipronged approach in eight counties that should provide evidence identifying the specific interventions that are most effective in reducing overdose deaths; our hope is that our experience can be used to inform other communities to optimize their response to the overdose crisis.”

-Staff report