needle exchange heroinThe number of heroin and opioid overdoses in Louisville has continued to skyrocket over the summer, as Metro EMS personnel had to administer the overdose antidote naloxone to 659 patients from May through July — which is three times the total from that period in 2015.

This trend is partly due to people addicted to prescription painkillers increasingly switching to the cheaper and more available heroin that has flooded the market in the wake of a state crackdown on “pill mills,” but the local health department also points to the increased presence of heroin supplies being cut with fentanyl — an opioid much more powerful than heroin that comes with a much greater risk of a deadly overdose.

Records obtained from the Jefferson County Coroner’s Office show that there were 31 fatal overdoses in Louisville during the first three months of 2016 where fentanyl was detected in the autopsy — which was over 15 times higher than that period in 2015 and easily eclipsed the total for all of that year.

The Metro Department of Public Health and Wellness issued an urgent warning in March about an alarming increase in overdose deaths from people using heroin who were unaware that it was laced with fentanyl, rapidly increasing a trend they began to witness at the end of 2015. The coroner’s records show that in March alone, 20 people who died of an overdose had fentanyl in their system.

That month coincided with the dramatic increase of EMS personnel having to administer naloxone (also known by its brand name, Narcan) to overdose victims, which included 278 patients — five times higher than the previous March and nearly triple that of the highest month in 2015. EMS records obtained through an open records request show that number went down to 141 in April, but again leaped to an all-time high of 314 patients in May, already surpassing the total from all of 2015. That number decreased to 217 in June and 128 in July, but the total figure through that month for 2016 of 1,270 patients receiving Narcan from EMS is still triple the total from that period in the previous year.

Figures provided by Metro Emergency Medical Services
Figures provided by Metro Emergency Medical Services

These figures certainly understate the total number of opioid overdoses in Louisville, as they do not include other public agencies — such as LMPD and Metro Corrections — administering naloxone to people who have overdosed, nor private citizens who have administered the antidote to friends and family. Louisville’s public health department and the Kentucky Harm Reduction Coalition have distributed thousands of free naloxone kits to opioid addicts and their loved ones at trainings in the region over the past year, and recent legislation has made the medication more accessible at pharmacies.

Health department spokesman Dave Langdon tells IL that they still are seeing heroin laced with fentanyl in Louisville, and says one of their certified drug and alcohol counselors has the impression that this problem is only getting worse. Langdon also noted that this fentanyl problem is not unique to Louisville, as the region has witnessed a staggering hike in overdoses involving the drug over the past week.

Tuesday evening in the rural counties of Jennings and Jackson in southern Indiana, 11 people overdosed and one died from heroin believed to have been laced with fentanyl. The same mixture is believed to have led to 30 overdoses in Cincinnati in a 24-hour span last weekend, and 26 overdoses in a four-hour period last week just across the northeast Kentucky border in Huntington, W.Va.

The federal Center for Disease Control issued an emergency alert to public health departments around the country on Thursday, warning of a recent influx of counterfeit pills containing fentanyl but labeled as other drugs such as Oxycodone and Xanax and noting that seizures of illicitly manufactured fentanyl has recently doubled. The CDC also warned that the illicit use of carfentanil — an elephant tranquilizer 100 times more potent than fentanyl — recently has emerged in throughout Ohio, including Cincinnati.

LMPD spokesman Dwight Mitchell tells IL that officers across all eight divisions received extensive training and education about administering naloxone to overdose victims in January, and in the following month they all received overdose response kits containing naloxone. Since that time, each division has been assigned two kits per beat.

Figures provided by LMPD show that since February, officers have administered 471 doses of naloxone to 325 people who have overdosed. The largest number of people receiving naloxone from officers was 94 in March, and those numbers have decreased in each of the past four months, with 24 so far in August.

Mitchell added that LMPD does not have statistics on the seizures of fentanyl in Louisville, as the Kentucky State Police typically analyzes drug seizures in their lab, which can take two to three months.

This story has been updated with information provided by the LMPD.

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