More than 2,000 Kentuckians died from a drug overdose in 2021, according to a new report released by the Kentucky Justice and Public Safety Cabinet and the Office of Drug Control Policy (ODCP).
Deaths from overdoses have increased each year since 2019; in 2021, deaths increased by 14.5%.
“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 in a press release.
Fentanyl was identified as the cause of 72% of all drug overdoses in the state in 2021, a 16% increase from 2020.
In Jefferson Country, 569 people died from drug overdoses, 477 of those deaths involved fentanyl, according to the report.
“We saw in recent years an infiltration of fentanyl into the market and drugs being manufactured with fentanyl in them and sold as something else,” Louisville Metro Department of Public Health and Wellness director, Dr. Jeff Howard, said.
According to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the United States experienced a 12% increase in reported drug overdose deaths between December 2020 and December 2021.
One of the leading factors is thought to be the stress the COVID-19 pandemic caused for people on mental, emotional and physical health levels.
Between 2019 and 2020, over the course of the first year of the pandemic, the state reported a 49% increase in drug overdose deaths.
“What we’ve seen across the board since COVID-19 began, and we’ve become more isolated as a society, is that deaths of despair, substance abuse, overdose deaths, suicide, etc., all went up as a result,” Howard said.
People who struggle with addiction usually already have pre-existing factors that predispose them to substance usage, and the repeated usage of substances changes the brain work, according to Howard.
“Over time, the reward center in these folks’ brains become so altered that it’s hard to imagine – I think for folks who are clean or not suffering from this disorder – the extreme amount of neuropsychiatric disturbances that go on, and the enormous burden they have to overcome to eventually get clean from substance abuse disorders,” Howard said.
The isolation of the pandemic made it more difficult for people to get the services that help with managing addiction.
“We know that our people need connections to other people,” Heather Gibson, vice president of program service for The Healing Place recovery facility, said. “People who are in recovery, people who have similar experiences to them, we know how important that is.”
Van Ingram, ODCP’s executive director, said the state’s plan to address rising overdose numbers includes increasing the access to clinical care for those struggling with addiction and increasing harm reduction efforts.
In March 2021, Beshear signed a law that aims to create “Recovery Ready Communities” across the state. Part of the process included the establishment of the Advisory Council for Recovery Ready Communities within ODCP. This board is working to create a certification process for counties to be considered recovery ready.
In order to receive the certification, cities and counties must offer “transportation, support groups, recovering meetings and employment services at no cost to residents currently seeking treatment for a drug or alcohol addiction.”
“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,” Beshear said in the release.
Gibson said long-term recovery plans are key in helping those struggling with addiction.
“We know it takes a long time for them to heal,” Gibson said. “We provide them the space to do that with not only clinical treatment but also with social connections and with peer-driven support here as well.”
In Jefferson County, which saw the highest number of overdoses in the state, the Department of Health and Wellness is focusing on two ways to handle substance abuse—harm reduction and increasing access.
Harm reduction efforts include curbing diseases spread through syringe exchange and testing programs, increasing the availability of naloxone at harm reduction sites and giving out fentanyl testing strips.
As far as access goes, Howard said the department wants to act as a connector between people ready to receive help and the places that can provide those services.
“We want to be able to help to manage them over to the right folks who can help them enter over into treatment and give them the best opportunity we possibly can to help get their lives straight and come off the burdens of addiction,” Howard said.