‘Cannot do this alone:’ Fatal drug overdoses down, more work to be done

Published 3:47 pm Friday, June 7, 2024

FRANKFORT — Once the de facto capital of the opioid epidemic, Kentucky is a now a national model for treatment, recovery and prevention. Thursday, Gov. Andy Beshear announced that drug overdose deaths declined 9.8% from 2022 to 2023 in Kentucky, compared to a three percent national decrease.

According to the 2023 Kentucky Drug Overdose Fatality Report, 1,984 Kentuckians died from a drug overdose in 2023, a rate of 45.9 deaths per 100,000 residents.

Fatal overdoses among Kentucky residents have steadily risen throughout the past decade, until 2022, when they began to fall.

This compares to 2,135 overdose deaths in 2022, 2,250 deaths in 2021 and 1,964 deaths in 2020. In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, Kentucky recorded a state overdose death record in 2021.

Nearly 80% of the overdose fatalities involved fentanyl, while just over half included methamphetamine. Other common drugs include cocaine, acetylfentanyl and oxycodone.

But while Beshear celebrated the downward trajectory of overdose fatalities, he noted one dark spot. While overdose fatality rates among white Kentuckians have fallen since 2021, they’ve increased among Black Kentuckians—from 60 deaths per 100,000 Black Kentuckians in 2021 to 68 deaths in 2023.

To improve this figure, Beshear said his administration would focus on additional local partnerships and listening to people within the Black community.

The highest overdose death rates were recorded in Eastern Kentucky counties, while the presence of fentanyl and methamphetamines were highest in urban counties like Jefferson, Fayette, Kenton, Madison and Pike counties.

Collaboration to reduce overdose deaths

Multiple speakers at the Thursday announcement emphasized the importance of working together to further reduce drug overdose deaths.

Tara Moseley Hyde, CEO of People Advocating Recovery, was one.

“We cannot do this alone; we have to come together,” said Hyde, who’s been in recovery since 2011. “…I can tell you firsthand that it can be difficult when facing a crisis to navigate the systems of power. I’m proud to work collaboratively with these structures to ensure that we give people the access to life-saving resources that our community needs and deserves.”

Kentucky has a variety of programs to help people at various stages of treatment, recovery and prevention.

The Counterdrug Program seizes drugs like fentanyl and meth. Last year, the program supported the seizure of 208 pounds of fentanyl—”enough to kill every single Kentuckian,” Beshear said.

In 2023, various groups distributed 160,000 doses of Narcan and 35,918 people used the state’s 84 syringe service program sites, said Van Ingram, executive director of the Office of Drug Control Policy.

Since 2019, Kentucky’s residential treatment beds have increased 50%; the Commonwealth now holds the highest per capita treatment bed rate nationally, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.

The fairly new Recovery Housing Program has funded 9 projects since 2020, a few of which are on on their way to completion, according to Logan Fogle of the Department of Local Government.

Second Chance employers and Kentucky’s Jobs on Day One program help those leaving incarceration to successfully re-enter society while avoiding past mistakes.

There are now 10 Recovery Ready certified communities. Kentuckians who need help connecting to support or resources can call 8338-KY-HELP to reach the statewide call center.

Next steps

Ingram said there’s no one group to credit for Kentucky’s improvements. Public health workers, EMS workers, advocates and others all play a part. But there is more to do.

Beshear challenged Ingram to focus on reentry efforts, he said.

“We’re doing everything we can think of,” Ingram said. “… So many of our folks that come out of jails and prisons are in no better shape to the day they walked in. That’s not right. We’ve got to do a better job of addressing people’s needs when they come from incarceration.”

Amanda Peters, executive director of the Northern Kentucky Office of Drug Control Policy, said her work to improve substance abuse recovery matters because every Kentuckians is impacted in some way by the opioid crisis.

“When we champion recovery, we change the health and economic outcome of not only our region, but our great state,” Peters said. “And more importantly, we are saving lives and changing family trees.”