Kentucky drug overdose deaths, led by fentanyl, rose again in 2021

Kentucky’s overdose deaths rose again last year, fueled by the increased use of fentanyl, a synthetic opioid that can be deadly in very small amounts.

In 2021, 2,250 Kentuckians died from drug overdoses — a 14.5% increase from the previous year — with fentanyl identified in 1,639, or 72.8%, of the deaths, according to the state’s annual Overdose Fatality Report released Monday.

Of the top five counties with the highest rates of overdose deaths, four — Estill, Perry, Rowan and Knott — were in Eastern Kentucky. The fifth, Gallatin County is in Northern Kentucky.

In Jefferson County, 569 people died from an overdose in 2021, according to the annual report.

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While the rate of increase in deaths has slowed — overdose deaths spiked by 49% the previous year — it is still deeply concerning, especially with increasing availability of fentanyl, said a Louisville official involved in addiction treatment and recovery.

Fentanyl is cheap, easily accessible and deadly, said Marty Purdy, vice-president for addiction services for Seven Counties Services, a regional community mental health system for Jefferson and six surrounding counties

“It’s such a killer,” Purdy said. “What we’ve never seen before is the lethality of this in such small quantities.”

Further, fentanyl is increasingly used to lace other illicit drugs, including counterfeit pills, which can result in a fatal outcome for people believing they are taking another drug, Purdy said.

And despite the risks, some people suffering from addiction will still use drugs that may contain fentanyl, he said.

“As scary as it is, when you’re in the worst throes of addiction, you find yourself taking that chance,” Purdy said.

Other drugs involved in overdose deaths included methamphetamine, oxycodone and heroin, the report said.

The increase comes as state officials continue to try to expand services for addiction and have poured millions of dollars into treatment and recovery programs.

In a news release, Gov. Andy Beshear said the state, with the aid of multiple partners, is fighting to address addiction and reduce overdose deaths that have long plagued Kentucky.

“Here in the commonwealth, we have been fighting a long battle against the opioid epidemic,” he said. “This public health crisis has torn families apart and taken the lives of far too many Kentuckians, far too soon.

Among the initiatives Beshear cited Monday: a “Ready Recoveries Communities” project to provide free services to individuals with addiction; and House Bill 7, enacted by the General Assembly last year to increase local access to high-quality recovery programs.

Van Ingram, executive director of the state Office of Drug Control Policy, said the state in the coming year will work to increase access to clinical care and “harm reduction measures” to try to help more people with addiction.

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While Ingram didn’t specify what the measures might entail, Purdy said they could include more access to naloxone, which reduces the effects of an opioid overdose.

Other measures include syringe exchanges, where people with addiction can obtain clean syringes and also get information about treatment, and more access to medication which helps people recover from addiction, such as Buprenorphine, Purdy said.

Purdy said while some may not understand the need for such services, believing they enable people who are using drugs, they are essential to help people achieve and maintain recovery.

Wider access to naloxone, which can reverse an overdose, is especially important, he said.

“That is the one thing that can pull them back from that one fatal mistake,” he said. “It saves lives and helps people live to battle this disease another day.”

Officials blamed, in part, the sharp spike of overdose deaths in 2020 on the COVID-19 pandemic, which forced many treatment programs to stop seeing patients in person and caused the temporary shutdown of many businesses and community activities.

“Addiction is a disease of isolation,” Purdy said.

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The easing of restrictions last year may have helped reduce the rate of overdose deaths, he said.

But addiction remains an epidemic in Kentucky and most other states, he said.

Purdy said while access to treatment and recovery services has expanded in Kentucky, some people still fear seeking help.

More open public discussion is the only way to reduce fear and shame some associate with seeking help, Purdy said.

“What we’re battling is a chronic disease,” he said. “It’s just like somebody who’s having to manage diabetes.”

The Beshear administration cited several sources of help for people seeking addiction treatment. They include:

  • The KY Help Call Center, at 1-8338-KY-HELP (1-833-859-4357), where people may call and speak with a specialist to connect with treatment.
  • The website which helps individuals locate a treatment facility.
  • The Kentucky State Police website, which lists the state’s 16 KSP posts that provide assistance locating treatment.
  • Also, the state’s network of 14 regional community mental health and addiction services programs are listed on the state’s website.

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