Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Louisville withstood its worst spike in fatal and nonfatal overdoses this winter, but statistics provided by the city’s first responder agencies show these figures remained steady at roughly half that level throughout the summer months.

Health department officials say this drop could be partly attributable to their efforts to increase the public distribution of naloxone — the drug used to revive someone who has overdose on opioids such as heroin or fentanyl — while addiction treatment providers hope their efforts to increase access to comprehensive services are beginning to produce results.

After record annual highs were reached in 2016, the worst month of Louisville’s current opioid crisis occurred this February, when nearly 400 patients on Louisville EMS overdose runs were administered a dose of naloxone. Records from the Jefferson County Coroner’s office and the Louisville Metro Police Department show that fatal overdoses also reached a record high of roughly 50 that month.

However, records from these city departments show that such overdoses decreased dramatically by April and remained at much lower levels through August — though, such statistics remain much higher than they were in 2015 and are a reminder of the brutal costs of the epidemic also sweeping the rest of the state and much of the country.

While the 332 patients receiving naloxone on EMS overdose runs this March remained the city’s second-highest total, this figure was cut nearly in half by April, remaining near that level before dipping to 158 in August — the lowest number since November of last year. This makes five consecutive months in which the number of patients receiving naloxone on EMS overdose runs has stayed below 200, whereas 2016 never had even three consecutive months in which that number was not exceeded.

Statistics provided by Louisville EMS

The 155 doses (2 mg) of naloxone administered by EMS personnel in August was actually the lowest total recorded over the past three years, as LMPD officers and Louisville firefighters are increasingly the ones administering the drug to victims at the scene of an opioid overdose. Even when factoring the 270 doses of naloxone administered in August by first responders in all three of these departments, this total was the lowest it has been since February of 2016.

An internal LMPD report listing the suspected fatal overdoses they are investigating also shows a significant drop since February, in which the department had 48 cases. In the following months, the number of suspected fatal overdoses did not reach even half of that total, amounting to 17 in both July and August. While preliminary, these fatal overdose figures may suggest that this spring and summer have been less deadly than last year’s, as records of the coroner’s office showed that over 40 people died of an overdose in March, May and June of 2016.

Statistics from internal LMPD report

Though these statistics in recent months appear to be moving in the right direction, overdoses are still far greater than what they were as recently as 2015. While the number of people receiving naloxone has ranged between 150 and 200 in the last five months, there was only one month in all of 2015 in which this number even slightly exceeded 100.

Statistics provided by Louisville EMS

Dr. Sarah Moyer, the director of Louisville Metro Department of Public Health and Wellness, said in a statement to IL that perhaps the biggest factor in the reduction of the administration of Narcan (the major brand name of naloxone) is “the fact that so much Narcan is now available to private individuals — to the friends and families of drug users.”

“It’s important that Narcan quickly gets to those who need it to prevent overdose deaths,” stated Moyer. “That’s why Public Health and Wellness has worked with the Kentucky Harm Reduction Coalition to get thousands of doses of Narcan, along with training on how to administer it, into the hands of private citizens throughout the community. I encourage everyone to take the training, which only takes about 15 minutes, and to get a free Narcan kit.”

Moyer added that the health department is also now giving participants in the city’s syringe exchange prescriptions for Narcan that are filled at the UofL pharmacy “so the medication is quickly available if needed.”

Amanda Newton — the spokeswoman for Centerstone Kentucky, the region’s largest behavioral health care provider — said the nonprofit is seeing a considerable increase in admissions to their addiction treatment programs this year, which she hopes is playing a role in driving down overdose rates. She added that Centerstone and other local treatment providers formed an advisory group with the health department’s Office of Addiction Services this year to share resources and best practices, saying they “are no longer working in silos.”

“We are treating this disease not in an acute care model, but rather as a chronic disease model,” said Newton. “People are staying engaged in treatment longer as we have developed ways in which to wrap support and services around the individual with peer support, case management and sober living options.”

The local chapter of Volunteers of America has also expanded their residential and outpatient treatment facilities in Louisville over the past year, with president and CEO Jennifer Hancock telling IL they “are working to provide the prevention and recovery services that make fewer calls to EMS necessary. The best way to stop an overdose is to give individuals the tools they need to beat their addiction… We see the reality of these numbers every day – Louisville families need more resources and they need them long before an overdose call is made.”

Joe Sonka
Joe Sonka is a staff writer at Insider Louisville focusing on government, politics, education and public safety. He is a former news editor and staff writer at LEO Weekly and has also freelanced for The Nation and ThinkProgress. He has won first place awards from the Louisville Metro chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists in the categories of Health Reporting, Enterprise Reporting, Government/Politics, Minority/Women’s Affairs Reporting, Continuing Coverage and Best Blog. Email him at [email protected]