Almost 2,000 state residents died of overdoses last year: Report

FRANKFORT, Ky. (WTVQ/Press Release) – The Kentucky Justice and Public Safety Cabinet and Office of Drug Control Policy (ODCP) announced the 2020 Overdose Fatality Report indicates more than 1,964 Kentuckians died from drug overdoses in 2020, a 49% increase in drug overdose deaths compared with the year prior.

The national number of overdose deaths for 2020 — more than 93,000 — is the highest number of overdose deaths 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.”

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 Aug. 2, 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 Secretary 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.”

One of several steps the Governor has taken this past year to help provide treatment to those fighting a substance use disorder and keep those in recovery on the path toward healing 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.

“Recovery is enhanced, overdoses are avoided and recidivism is decreased when vital resources are available where people live and work,” said Gov. Andy 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 Executive Director 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.”

When he served as Attorney General, Andy Beshear filed more lawsuits against opioid distributors and manufacturers than anyone else in the country, leading the change in holding unscrupulous drug companies accountable for the damage done to Kentucky communities and Kentucky families. He has continued his fight as Governor and has worked to provide resources to help people overcome addictions.

The administration is working to reduce addiction and prevent re-incarceration through a statewide project that provides transportation at no charge to former inmates so they can access substance-abuse recovery facilities, medical appointments, job interviews, educational courses, probation and parole meetings, and employment. The program is made possible through a $1.7 million grant award by ODCP to the Department of Corrections (DOC) to partner with the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet. DOC estimates that approximately 50,000 citizens across the commonwealth, currently under the supervision of probation or parole, will utilize this project.

ODCP has continued to work diligently with several agencies throughout the commonwealth, including Kentucky Opioid Response Effort, Kentucky Pharmacists Association, DOC, and the Cabinet for Health and Family Services, to successfully increase the distribution of naloxone (Narcan).

To access naloxone or for more resources on how to respond to an overdose, click here.

“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.”

CHFS has worked to maintain and even expand access to prevention, harm reduction, treatment, and recovery support services. Barriers to treatment have been reduced by increasing Medicaid enrollment so that payment will not be a barrier, removing prior authorizations for life-saving medications and behavioral health treatment, expanding telehealth services, and enhancing Kentucky All Schedule Prescription Reporting System (KASPER) to support safe prescribing practices.

Additionally, the cabinet has applied for an 1115 waiver to treat substance use disorder for incarcerated individuals to ensure they have access to medications and treatments upon release. The Department for Medicaid Services has also collaborated with legislators regarding verbiage in Senate Bill 51 that eliminated prior authorizations for Medicaid Assisted Treatment for substance abuse disorder.

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.”

For more information on the study’s research on the impact community intervention has on reducing overdose deaths in Kentucky, click here. The HEALing Communities Study is expected to be completed by the end of 2022.

Treatment Resources

The KY Help Call Center, created in 2017 through a partnership with Operation UNITE, remains available to those with a substance use disorder, or their friends or family members, as a quick resource to information on treatment options and open slots among treatment providers. Individuals may call 833-8KY-HELP (833-859-4357) to speak one-on-one with a specialist who will connect them with treatment as quickly as possible.

The Kentucky Injury Prevention and Research Center at the University of Kentucky College of Public Health manages a vital website, www.findhelpnowky.org, for Kentucky health care providers, court officials, families and individuals seeking options for substance abuse treatment and recovery. It offers real-time information about available space in treatment programs, and guides users to the right type of treatment for their needs. The site provides a search engine for drug treatment, helping users locate treatment providers based on location, facility type, and category of treatment needed.

The Kentucky State Police (KSP) Angel Initiative is a proactive program designed to help people battle addiction. Anyone suffering from a substance use disorder can visit one of KSP’s 16 posts located throughout the commonwealth to be paired with a local officer who will assist with locating an appropriate treatment program. The Angel Initiative is completely voluntary, and individuals will not be arrested or charged with any violations if they agree to participate in treatment. For more information about the Angel Initiative, visit the KSP website.

For a video from Gov. Beshear on available treatment and resources, and the importance of knowing how to respond to an overdose, click here.

To download a copy of the 2020 Overdose Fatality Report, click here.