The powerful opioid fentanyl contributed to 57 percent of the 179 fatal drug overdoses in Louisville during the first five months of this year, according to data obtained from the Jefferson County Coroner’s office.
These numbers provide further evidence that fentanyl — a synthetic opioid 50 times more potent than heroin — has overtaken heroin to become the main driver of Louisville’s rapid increase in fatal drug overdoses over the past two years, despite being practically unheard of in early 2015.
According to data from the local coroner’s office dating back to 2015, fentanyl was found in the toxicology report of just 12 percent of fatal overdose victims that year, while heroin was present in nearly half.
But in 2016, fentanyl exploded into the Louisville market with deadly results, contributing to 43 percent of the rapidly increasing fatal overdoses that year, while heroin decreased to being involved in 30 percent of the total.
The data through this May show that fentanyl’s presence has only increased, largely contributing to a spike in overdose fatalities that began in January and wound up peaking to 53 in February — well above the previous high months in 2016.
Though fatal overdoses significantly declined in the three months following this February spike — matching a similar rate of decline seen among opioid overdose victims treated by city first responders — there was still a 24 percent increase in such fatalities compared to the first five months of 2016, and a 65 percent increase in fentanyl-related fatal overdoses from that same time period.
For comparison’s sake, through August of 2015, there was not a single month in which fentanyl-related fatal overdoses exceeded two — including zero that March — but in January of 2017 there were 27, followed by 24 in February and 19 in the next two months.
While fentanyl is now the most common drug contributing to a fatal overdose in Louisville, it was also involved in 70 percent of all opioid-related fatalities through May of this year. Opioids of any kind — including fentanyl, heroin and prescription painkillers — were involved in 145, or 81 percent, of the fatal overdoses in this period.
While heroin was once the most common specific drug found to contribute to a fatal overdose, it was only present in 26 percent of fatalities through May, and in most cases was present along with the much more potent fentanyl in the victim’s toxicology report.
In most overdose fatality cases in which fentanyl was present, other powerful drugs besides just heroin were found, too, including methamphetamine, cocaine, prescription painkillers and gabapentin.
While the presence of two different drugs in a person’s system does not necessarily mean they were taken together, officials with Louisville’s health department have warned since March 2016 that fentanyl is sometimes cut into heroin supplies without the knowledge of users, and there have also recently been anecdotal reports of fentanyl being mixed with cocaine and meth.
Just as fentanyl played a key factor in several rapid weeklong spikes of fatal overdoses from March through June of 2016, so too did the powerful opioid in periods during the first two months of 2017.
During a one-week period in January, there were 16 fatal overdoses, with fentanyl present in 10 of these, while three fentanyl-related overdoses occurred on the same day. During a 12-day stretch in late February, 29 people died of a drug overdose, with fentanyl contributing to a majority of these fatalities.
Dr. Sarah Moyer, the new director of the Metro Department of Public Health and Wellness, told IL this week that while the decrease in overdoses since the February spike this year is encouraging, it is hard to predict whether or not Louisville will go through another fentanyl-induced spike in the near future. She added that a growing number of participants in the department’s syringe exchange have indicated changing their injecting habits due to a fear of fentanyl, or even switching from heroin to meth — a trend that she has also heard of from health officials in northern Kentucky.