On June 13, the Commonwealth of Kentucky released the 2021 Drug Overdose Report, which indicates that 2,250 Kentuckians died from drug overdoses in 2021, a 14.5 percent increase compared with the year prior. More than 107,000 overdose deaths were reported in the United States between December 2020 to December 2021.

Addiction, said the report, remains one of the most critical public health and safety issues facing the Commonwealth of Kentucky. The findings of the report show how the diversion and abuse of prescription drugs, heroin, methamphetamine and illicit fentanyl have contributed to an alarming, sustained increase in overdose deaths.

Within the report's collected data, officials found that the number of overdose deaths have increased each year for the past few years. In 2019, there were 1,316 overdose deaths; statewide in 2020, there were 1,964 overdose deaths, a 49 percent increase from 2019; and in 2021, there were 2,250 overdose deaths, a 14.5 percent increase from 2020.

This concerning trend of increasing overdose deaths, officials said, is due to several contributing factors, with the most significant contributors being the rise in illicit fentanyl and the indirect effects from the COVID-19 pandemic, which brought a rise in overdose deaths and new addictions nationwide.

According to cases autopsied by Kentucky’s Office of the State Medical Examiner and toxicology reports submitted by Kentucky coroners, the rise in the death toll was driven largely by an increased use in fentanyl, which accounts for approximately 70 percent of all overdose deaths for the year. Additionally, the increase in overdose deaths was worsened by the widespread availability of potent inexpensive methamphetamine.

Additionally, the report said, COVID-19 caused interruptions to people’s daily lives bringing about greater isolation, economic concerns and increased anxiety about the future, public health, sickness and the ability to meet one’s basic needs. All of these issues are detrimental to those struggling with addiction or in recovery, said the report.

Perry County, the report shows, was ranked in the top five Kentucky counties with the highest rates of drug overdose deaths in 2021. The top five counties with high overdose rates included:

• Estill County had 22 drug overdose deaths and a rate of 147.89 overdose deaths per 100,000 residents;

• Gallatin County had 12 drug overdose deaths and a rate of 145.89 overdose deaths per 100,000 residents;

• Perry County had 35 drug overdose deaths and a rate of 141.81 overdose deaths per 100,000 residents;

• Rowan County had 27 drug overdose deaths and a rate of 130.82 overdose deaths per 100,000 residents; and

• Knott County had 16 drug overdose deaths and a rate of 122.67 overdose deaths per 100,000 residents.

Kentucky River District Public Health Director Scott Lockard said the numbers are concerning, but not shocking, taking into account the COVID-19 pandemic.

“For overdose  prevention, for individuals in drug treatment, one of the things that's most important is that they're being supported and going to events and getting the services they need,” he said. “We were seeing shut downs and everything, so we were seeing situations that caused increased stress on individuals and the support they needed to battle their disease of addiction.”

A change in drugs coming into the region is also a factor, Lockard said, with a rise in the presence of fentanyl and carfentanil.

Lockard said there were a lot of challenges with the shift from pharmaceutical drugs that were being used illicitly going to another substance laced with fentanyl and carfentanil.

“The potency from one batch to another may vary dramatically,” Lockard said.

In response to the rise in overdoses, the KRDHD has been holding Narcan distribution events through the health department and community partners; they stay in contact with first responders to make sure they are stocked on Narcan; they hold training sessions for the community; and they try to educate the community and address the issues going on.

Lockard said there are several available resources in the community for people who need help.

“You have a community that is really trying to help people battle their addictions,” he said.

For help getting treatment, call the KRDHD at (606) 439-2361.

State officials said the report further shows the severity of the problem with the fight against substance abuse and overdoses.

“Here in the commonwealth, we have been fighting a long battle against the opioid epidemic. This public health crisis has torn families apart and taken the lives of far too many Kentuckians, far too soon,” Gov. Andy Beshear said. “Every day we must work together to fund recovery programs and treatment options so that we can continue to address this scourge and get our people the help they need.”

The 2021 Overdose Fatality Report, released by the Kentucky Justice and Public Safety Cabinet and the Office of Drug Control Policy (ODCP), compiled data from the Office of the State Medical Examiner, the Kentucky Injury Prevention & Research Center and the Kentucky Office of Vital Statistics.

“The drug epidemic is not a Kentucky issue or political issue, but a nationwide issue that is affecting everyone and every state,” said ODCP Executive Director Van Ingram. “Our focus over this next year will be on increasing access to clinical care for those suffering from an addiction and offering more harm reduction measures.”

Since his appointment as Secretary of the Justice and Public Safety Cabinet, Kerry Harvey said he believes he has made it clear that fighting the drug epidemic while reducing the stigma around it is a top priority.

“The Justice and Public Safety Cabinet has been and remains committed to those struggling with addiction and their families,” said Secretary Harvey. “The safety of all Kentuckians is one of the issues at the heart of this problem. We are working to provide help to all those affected by drug addiction, especially those who are seeking to go into recovery.”

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