Thursday, July 18, 2019

OD deaths in Ky. dropped nearly 15% in 2018; officials credit many policy initiatives, but say 'incredible challenges' remain

By Melissa Patrick
Kentucky Health News

Kentucky saw a nearly 15 percent drop in drug-overdose deaths in 2018, the first decline since 2013, and almost three times the national decline of 5.1%.

Most of the deaths were again caused by fentanyl, a synthetic opioid that can be up to 50 times more potent than heroin, according to the annual Kentucky Office of Drug Control Policy report.

The state recorded 1,333 overdose deaths in 2018. That was 233 fewer than in 2017, when 1,566 were recorded, a decline of 14.9%.

Toxicology reports are available for 1,298 of last year's deaths; fentanyl was found in 786 autopsies, or nearly 61% -- up from 52% in 2017 and 47% in 2016.

Van Ingram, executive director of the Office of Drug Control Policy, said in a news release that the overall decline was likely the result of the state's many policy initiatives, along with a growing awareness about the dangers of opioids and the threat of overdose.

“We’ve pushed hard to develop the most comprehensive approach possible, combining education and treatment with a multitude of other harm-reduction strategies,” Ingram said. “We still have a great deal of work to do, but it’s clear that Kentucky’s efforts are making an impact.”

Reflecting anecdotal law-enforcement reports, there was increase in deaths from methamphetamine, a stimulant that has long plagued Kentucky. It was found in 428 cases, up from 357 in 2017.

The report says overdose deaths from heroin declined in 2018 and did those from alprazolam, an anti-anxiety medicine that is often known by its brand name Xanax; and from gabapentin, which sells under the brand names Neurontin, Gralise and Horizant and is often taken along with other illicit drugs to enhance their effects.

Heroin-related deaths dropped 30% to 188 in 2018, from 270 in 2017. Deaths involving alprazolam dropped 20% to 214 cases, down from 269 in 2017. Deaths from gabapentin dropped 30%, to 255 cases, down from 363 in 2017.

Deaths related to the widely used pain medication oxycodone dropped to 110 from 157 respectively, or 30%.

“The numbers are trending down, but our state still faces incredible challenges,” Justice and Public Safety Cabinet Secretary John Tilley said. “This crisis claimed more than 1,300 lives last year and inflicted untold heartbreak on our families and communities. I only hope the latest numbers serve as evidence that strong interventions and better access to treatment can and do save lives."

Rate is per 100,000 residents; data from
2018 Kentucky Overdose Fatality Report
Of the 1,333 deaths, 1,247 of them, or 93.6 percent, were Kentucky residents. County-by-county figures in the report are based on deaths of residents, and are adjusted for age.

Boyd County (Ashland and Catlettsburg) had the highest rate of fatal overdoses in 2018, followed by Madison (Richmond and Berea), Kenton (Covington, Independence, etc.), Clark (Winchester) and Campbell (Newport etc.).

Counties with fewer than 10 deaths were not included in the rate calculation, so the report have rates for only the 23 counties with 10 or more overdose deaths.

The highest rate of overdose deaths continues to be among people between 35 and 44, followed by 25-34, then 45-54.

State and federal efforts

The state and its partners have launched a number of efforts to battle the state's opioid and substance-abuse epidemic, including the KY Help Call Center (1-833-859-4357), which provides information on treatment options and open slots among treatment providers and an online website that provides a similar service called

The Department of Corrections is overhauling the way it addresses substance abuse. Kentucky State Police have launched the Angel Initiative, which allows anyone with a substance use disorder seeking treatment to visit a KSP post, where they would be directed to treatment.

The General Assembly has passed several laws in recent years, including a crackdown on pain clinics, limiting opioid prescriptions for acute pain to a three-day supply (with exemptions), tougher penalties for heroin dealers and more funding for drug treatment and other response efforts.

A news release from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell's office points out that Kentucky is also benefiting from nearly $200 million in federal money that he has helped to secure.

That includes an $87 million federal grant recently awarded to the University of Kentucky to address the opioid epidemic in 16 high-risk counties, which is the largest grant in the school's history and an indicator of the magnitude of the problem.

"I’ve made the fight to save lives from the horrors of addiction and abuse a top national priority," McConnell said in the release. "The results of our work at the federal and state level with our many local partners on the front lines are evident in today’s announcement."

Data for the report were compiled from the Kentucky Medical Examiner's Office, the Kentucky Injury Prevention & Research Center and the state Office of Vital Statistics.

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