Fatal drug overdoses in Kentucky increased by 11.5 percent to 1,565 in 2017, with the powerful opioid fentanyl being present in the majority of these cases, according to the annual fatality report from the Kentucky Office of Drug Control Policy.

The report showed that Jefferson County once again led the state by a wide margin with 426 fatal drug overdoses last year — a 17 percent increase from 2016 — with fentanyl being involved in 64 percent of these deaths.

Of the 1,468 overdose deaths statewide in which a toxicology report was available, fentanyl was present in 763 of these cases, or 52 percent. This was an increase from the 623 deaths involving fentanyl in 2016, which accounted for 47 percent of fatal drug overdoses with a toxicology report.

Fentanyl and its derivatives — typically used for end-of-life care — are at least 50 times more potent than heroin and were only rarely involved in fatal overdoses just three years ago. However, the presence of fentanyl in the illegal drug market surged in Kentucky and other states in 2016, overtaking heroin that year as the main contributor to the epidemic of fatal opioid overdoses.

Van Ingram, the executive director of the Kentucky Office of Drug Control Policy, stated in a news release that illicit drug cartels in China and Mexico are focusing more on fentanyl because it is cheaper to produce and brings in higher profit margins.

“Fentanyl is the deadliest and most addictive drug our nation has ever seen,” Ingram stated. “The fact that people continue to use it – despite the obvious risk – shows just how addictive these drugs are. People have become powerless against them. That’s why we have to make every effort to intervene with a comprehensive treatment response.”

While prescription painkillers began the region’s opioid epidemic more than a decade ago and used to be the leading cause of fatal overdoses — only to be surpassed by heroin in recent years — both types of opioids are present in a decreasing percentage of such deaths.

The 2017 report shows that heroin was a factor in 22 percent of fatal overdose cases in Kentucky last year, compared to 34 percent in 2016. Prescription painkillers oxycodone and hydrocodone separately were present in 14 percent of cases in 2017, a drop from 20 percent and 16 percent in 2016, respectively.

Three other drugs were more commonly found in the toxicology reports of overdose victims than heroin in 2017: alprazolam, a sedative that is in Xanax, was present in 36 percent of the fatalities; gabapentin, a non-opioid painkiller, was present in 31 percent of fatal overdoses; and methamphetamine surged to 29 percent — more than double its percentage from 2016.

The 2017 report’s findings on Louisville overdoses largely match the records of the Jefferson County Coroner’s office, which documented a record high of nearly 400 accidental fatal drug overdoses that year, with fentanyl present in 64 percent of those deaths. The local coroner records also found that 87 percent of all accidental drug overdose deaths in Louisville last year involved some type of opioid, with just 50 cases having no opioid present in their toxicology report.

While the report showed that Jefferson County had more fatal overdoses than any county in 2017, its overdose death rate of 45.6 residents per 100,000 did not crack the top five statewide, with northern Kentucky’s Kenton and Campbell Counties leading the state with rates of 69.5 and 66 per 100,000 residents, respectively.

Records from the Jefferson County Coroner’s office through the first four months of 2018 show that while fatal drug overdoses are continuing at an alarming rate, they are far below that record-high surge that occurred in the early part of 2017.

Statistics via Jefferson County Coroner’s office

The local coroner’s office recorded 176 accidental overdose deaths in the first four months of 2017 — led by a monthly record of 65 that February.  During that same period this year, the number of accidental overdose deaths fell 36 percent to 112. Of the 112 cases, fentanyl was present in 75 percent, and an opioid of any kind was present in more than 90 percent.

John Tilley, the secretary of the Kentucky Justice and Public Safety Cabinet, stated in Wednesday’s news release that the new fatality report “will only strengthen the resolve to fight this crisis in all corners of the commonwealth. We must continue to redouble our efforts and deploy every possible resource and intervention to save lives.”

The cabinet has recently launched the KY Help Call Center (1-833-8KY-HELP) to connect those with a substance use disorder or their family with a live specialist to treatment options. The website Findhelpnowky.org also provides a search engine for drug treatment and treatment providers based on location, facility type and the type of treatment needed.

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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]