Fatal accidental drug overdoses fell by 25 percent in 2018, with fentanyl involved in 69 percent of those deaths. | Statistics via Jefferson County Coroner’s office

The number of fatal accidental drug overdoses in Louisville fell by 25 percent last year to 299, which is the lowest annual total in the city since 2015, according to a review of records from the Jefferson County Coroner’s office.

While the total number of overdose deaths decreased by nearly 100 from the 398 recorded in 2017, the percentage of deaths involving fentanyl — the opioid that is at least 50 times more potent than heroin — increased once again, as it was found in the toxicology report of nearly 70 percent of overdose fatalities.

Once a rarity in the illicit drug trade, fentanyl began to emerge in Louisville at the end of 2015, a year in which nearly 12 percent of fatal overdoses involved fentanyl.

That figure shot up to 43 percent in 2016 — as the city’s health department warned of a spike in fatal overdoses attributed to users being unaware that their heroin supply was laced with fentanyl — and then to 64 percent of the city’s record-high 398 fatal overdoses in 2017.

Statistics via Jefferson County Coroner’s office

In an effort to curb the number of fentanyl overdoses, the Metro Department of Public Health and Wellness recently began distributing fentanyl testing strips at the syringe exchange sites that it operates, letting the user test their drugs like methamphetamine to see if they have been laced with the powerful opioid.

The coroner’s office records show that nearly 85 of fatal overdoses in 2018 involved at least one type of opioid, including heroin, morphine or prescription painkillers. That percentage amounts to a slight decrease from the previous year.

Statistics via Jefferson County Coroner’s office

While the 25 percent decrease in total overdose deaths last year corresponded with a decrease in the presence of several different drugs like cocaine and gabapentin in toxicology reports, that was not the case for methamphetamine.

Methamphetamine was present in the toxicology reports of 104 fatal overdose victims in 2018, a slight increase from the previous year’s total of 100. However, last year’s total of methamphetamine-related deaths increased to nearly 35 percent of the city’s total fatal overdoses, up from 25 percent in 2017.

While the presence of methamphetamine supplies being laced with fentanyl has been of particular concern to the health department of late — and 72 percent of meth-related overdose deaths last year also had an opioid in their system — the number of meth-related overdoses that did not involve opioids also increased from 23 to 29, which was nearly 10 percent of the city’s total deaths.

The percentage of total overdose deaths in 2017 and 2018 that involved opioids, fentanyl, methamphetamine, gabapentin and cocaine | Statistics via Jefferson County Coroner’s office records

Louisville Emergency Medical Services records show that nonfatal overdoses also decreased in 2018, though not as dramatically as fatal overdoses.

Louisville EMS received 6,688 overdose calls via 911 in 2018, a 12.6 percent decrease from the total in the previous year. The number of patients who were administered a dose of naloxone on those runs decreased by 6.8 percent to 2,287.

Dr. Sarah Moyer, the director of the Louisville Metro Department of Public Health and Wellness and the city’s chief health strategist, told Insider last year that while the recent downward trend in fatal and nonfatal overdoses was promising — citing the Fischer administration’s two-year plan to respond to the city’s substance use crisis that was released that March — there is much work left to do.

“Fewer overdoses are good news and a measure of our progress,” said Moyer, “but we must continue to work on preventing substance use, reducing stigma, improving access to treatment and giving people in recovery the support they need to lead healthy and productive lives.”

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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]