Louisville made national headlines due to this weekend’s surge in overdoses linked to heroin and fentanyl, with Emergency Medical Services responding to 118 overdose calls over a three-day period.

Such news cycles have increasingly become the norm in Louisville, as its heroin and opioid epidemic only picks up steam and the number of overdose victims needing to be revived by the city’s first responders has reached new levels this winter.

According to Louisville EMS statistics, its personnel administered naloxone to 908 patients suspected of overdosing in 2015, but that number leaped by 149 percent in 2016 to 2,258. The 284 patients receiving the opioid overdose antidote from EMS in December was the second-highest monthly total of 2016, and that number increased further to 305 in January — easily marking the largest consecutive two-month total during this period. Additionally, January’s total was over three times the number of patients receiving naloxone from EMS personnel in January of 2016.

Statistics provided by Louisville EMS

This trend shows no sign of stopping in February, as Louisville EMS went on 366 overdose runs in the first 12 days of this month — a pace that would far exceed the largest monthly number of overdose runs by EMS over the last two years. And just as December of last year and January of this year combined to have the largest two-month total of overdose victims receiving naloxone from EMS personnel, these months also witnessed the largest number of overall overdose runs by EMS.

Statistics provided by Louisville EMS

While nearly 20 percent of the 4,642 EMS overdose runs in 2015 involved its personnel administering naloxone to an individual, that percentage increased to 33 percent in the department’s 6,879 overdose runs last year. In last month’s 695 overdose runs — not limited to those suspected of overdosing on heroin, fentanyl or other opioids — 44 percent involved naloxone being administered.

During a discussion about the recent surge in overdoses at the Wednesday meeting of Metro Council’s health committee, Major Eric Johnson of LMPD said there have been 46 suspected overdose deaths in Louisville this year — already far exceeding the 26 suspected overdose deaths through February of 2016. He added that LMPD officers administered naloxone to 42 overdose victims in January, but had already exceeded that total in the first two weeks of February.

Dr. Joann Schulte, director of the Louisville Metro Department of Public Health and Wellness

Dr. Joann Schulte, executive director of the Metro Department of Public Health and Wellness, told the committee that this problem is not going away anytime soon — citing common factors like the overprescription of opioids for pain relief and the lack of access to medication-assisted treatment (MAT) for those fighting an opioid addiction. She also referred to the increasing presence of heroin supplies being cut with fentanyl and other derivatives of the opioid that are hundreds of times more potent than heroin.

Schulte told IL that all available evidence shows that Louisville’s heroin and opioid epidemic “has not peaked yet,” with the increased presence of fentanyl derivatives making the crisis even deadlier. While Louisville has some addiction treatment resources to combat the problem from the preventative angle, she added “I think we need more,” particularly MAT programs.

“Some people will go through an abstinence-only program once or twice and it works for them,” said Schulte. “With others that won’t work, and part of that depends on what your individual brain chemistry is. So I think you do need more physicians and programs who realize the chronic nature of the disease… and some of that (treatment) is the Suboxone, Vivitrol and methadone.”

Besides additional government funding for MAT programs, Schulte says local government should not put up additional barriers on where such treatment facilities can be located. While some on Metro Council have strongly opposed allowing new private methadone clinics to open near commercial or residential areas, Schulte applauded the Metro Planning Commission for recently recommending that such treatment clinics be treated like any other medical clinic.

“The fact is that everybody’s got someone in their backyard or nearby with an opioid abuse problem,” said Schulte. “Yet when you want to put a drug treatment program in facility X, it’s really difficult… People are going to have to get over this ‘not in my backyard’ mentality, or it’s going to be in the nearby graveyard.”

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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]