The number of deaths from drug overdoses in Kentucky jumped 11.5 percent in 2017 to 1,565, setting a new record, according to a report released Wednesday by the Kentucky Office of Drug Control Policy.
Deaths attributed to heroin alone declined slightly, but the potent painkiller fentanyl claimed more lives than ever. That opioid was a factor in 52 percent of the deaths, up slightly from 2016.
Fentanyl is a controlled narcotic that is used mostly in end-of-life care. It has been a leading factor in overdose deaths since 2015. It can be up to 50 times more potent than heroin.
“The gravity of today’s report underscores just how much is at stake in the ongoing battle against the nation’s opioid epidemic,” said Gov. Matt Bevin. “This is a fight we must win for the sake of our families, our communities, and the commonwealth as a whole. We will continue to leverage every available resource to close off the funnel of addiction and to help our fellow Kentuckians who are struggling against this scourge.”
The 2017 Overdose Fatality Report was compiled with data from the Kentucky Medical Examiner’s Office, the Kentucky Injury Prevention & Research Center and the Kentucky Office of Vital Statistics.
Heroin was found in about 22 percent of the deaths, but the report shows that at least three other drugs have overtaken heroin among overdose victims who underwent a toxicology test. Alprazolam, which is better known as Xanax, was detected in approximately 36 percent of cases and Gabapentin, commonly called Neurontin, was detected in 31 percent.
Methamphetamine is also making a comeback, detected in 29 percent of deaths, which is double from the year before.
Jefferson and Fayette counties had the most overdose deaths, with 352 and 123, respectively. The counties with the highest overdose death rate based on population were Kenton, Campbell, Boyd, Mason and Jessamine.
State officials continue to worry about fentanyl, particularly as drug cartels in China and Mexico have increased production because it is cheaper to make and offers higher profit margins.
“Fentanyl is the deadliest and most addictive drug our nation has ever seen,” said Van Ingram, executive director of the Kentucky Office of Drug Control Policy. “The fact that people continue to use it — despite the obvious risk — shows just how addictive these drugs are. People have become powerless against them. That’s why we have to make every effort to intervene with a comprehensive treatment response.”
State efforts to combat the drug abuse scourge include the “Don’t Let Them Die” campaign, a public awareness effort that offers information on substance abuse disorder, drug treatment and naloxone, a drug that can reverse the effects of overdoses.
In addition, the Kentucky Justice and Public Safety Cabinet partnered with Operation UNITE to create the KY Help Call Center, which allows people with a substance use disorder or their family members to speak with a live specialist about treatment options in Kentucky. People can call 1-833-8KY-HELP (1-833-859-4357) toll-free.
State officials also launched Findhelpnowky.org, which provides a search engine for drug treatment based on location and other factors. The Kentucky State Police also started the Angel Initiative this year, which will pair people with a local KSP officer to help them find a treatment program.