Nearly 400 people died of an accidental drug overdose in Louisville last year, with 64 percent of those fatalities involving the powerful opioid fentanyl, according to records from the Jefferson County Coroner’s office.
This amounts to yet another record-high total of fatal drug overdoses for Louisville, as the city continues to be hit hard by the national opioid epidemic that has shifted from prescription painkillers, to heroin, and now to fentanyl — the drug that was largely unheard of just a few years ago.
According to the records of the local coroner, their office has documented 396 cases of accidental drug overdoses in 2017, with lab results showing that fentanyl or fentanyl analogs were involved in 253 of those deaths.
These numbers are likely to increase even further, as their office still has open cases from the month of December that will not be closed until the lab results are completed.
The total numbers of deaths last year amounted to a 22.5 percent increase from Louisville’s previous record set in 2016, when the coroner’s office recorded 324 overdose deaths. The total from 2016 was a 56 percent increase from the 220 overdose deaths in 2015.
The pace of increase in the number of fatal overdose cases involving fentanyl has been even higher, as it was only found in 26 individuals during 2015. That total increased by over five times in 2016 to 139, and then increased by another 83 percent last year — a nearly tenfold increase over just two years.
While fatal overdoses involving fentanyl have surged, the number that involve heroin has actually declined in this period. In 2015, 46 percent of the fatal overdoses involved heroin (102), while those figures decreased in 2016 and then again in 2017, when only 75 involved heroin — just 19 percent of all cases.
Despite that decrease, as well as the decrease of prescription opioids, over 87 percent of all accidental drug overdose deaths in 2017 involved some type of opioid, with just 50 cases having no opioid detected in their system.
One drug that has surged in Louisville is gabapentin, a non-opioid prescription painkiller that has been increasingly abused. While gabapentin was present in only four fatal overdose cases in 2015, that total increased to 25 in 2016 and 92 last year, surpassing heroin.
While gabapentin was now prevalent in more of these fatalities, the much more potent and deadly fentanyl was present in over two-thirds of these same cases.
When examining the monthly totals of fatal overdoses, the record amount in 2017 was clearly driven by the local epidemic’s peak in January and February of that year. After the record 65 fatalities in February, Louisville’s monthly totals averaged roughly half of that amount for the rest of the year — though still remarkably high.
The 40 overdose deaths in August were still the sixth-highest monthly total over the last three years.
The coroner’s records show that 18 of the fatal overdose victims in 2017 were homeless and 45 lived outside of Jefferson County, though most of those people lived in neighboring counties. Over 64 percent of the victims were male.
In 2017, 2,454 patients received a dose of naloxone — the drug used to revive those who have overdosed on naloxone — from a first responder on a Louisville EMS overdose run. That amount surpassed the previous year’s record, as did the department’s 7,651 total overdose runs.
Asked to comment about the alarming fatal overdose statistics from 2017, Mayor Greg Fischer issued an emailed statement noting that Louisville is not alone in cities “dealing with a devastating opioid epidemic.”
“Experts have called it the worst drug crisis in American history,” said Fischer. “Far too many people have died, and far too many lives have been destroyed. Addressing this crisis is a priority for Louisville Metro Government and our community as a whole.”
Fischer added that the Department of Public Health and Wellness “has been working with experts to develop a two-year action plan to help us address substance use disorder in Louisville. We’ll be announcing details of that report later this month.”
Nationally, drug overdose fatalities steadily increased since 2000, but shot upward in recent years with the rise of heroin. In 2016, they increased even higher with the emergence of fentanyl, as over 20,000 of the 64,000 fatal drug overdoses that year involved such synthetic opioids.
The number of overdose deaths involving fentanyl nearly doubled to 10,000 in 2015, and then doubled again to 20,145 in 2016. The federal Center for Disease Control and National Institute on Drug Abuse have not yet complied the national overdose figures for 2017, which are usually released in the summer.