Thursday, June 6, 2024

Drug-overdose deaths of Kentuckians fell 9.8% last year, but rate among state's Blacks increased 5%; overall U.S. decline was 3%

Graph by Kentucky Health News from state data
By Al Cross
Kentucky Health News

In 2023, 9.8 percent fewer Kentuckians died from drug overdoses than the year before, according to an annual state report released Thursday.

A preliminary report from the Centers for Disease Comtrol and Prevention last month showed a 7.9% decrease, but the CDC now includes deaths of non-residents. The state Office of Drug Control Policy says in the state report that it uses only resident deaths "to better target harm reduction and prevention activities for Kentuckians." 

The state report was funded by the CDC and prepared for the office by the Kentucky Injury Prevention and Research Center at the University of Kentucky, as an agent for the state Department of Public Health.

It said 79% of the overdose deaths involved fentanyl, a powerful synthetic opioid, and 55% involved methamphetamine, a stimulant with psychedelic properties. The numbers are based on blood tests of victims, who usually have more than one illegal drug in their bloodstream.

“Fentanyl is what’s driving this crisis. If we could ever get a handle on that I think out potential for success is unbelievable,” Van Ingram, director of the drug-control office since 2004, said at an event in the state Capitol rotunda attended by people from the treatment, recovery and law-enforcement communities.

Gov. Andy Beshear told the crowd, “Some of the best news in this report is how much better than we were than the rest of the country,” in which overdose deaths declined 3%, according to the CDC. “Today’s news follows a long list of positive actions we have taken with so many people in this room,” he said.

Earlier, Beshear said, "The sad fact is we still lost 1,984 Kentuckians." That is about the same as in 2020, and much more than 2019. And he noted that overdose deaths among African American residents of the state rose 5% in 2023, from 259 to 264, after rising 22% from 2021 to 2022. While the recent increase was much less, "That is unacceptable," he said.

The rate of drug overdose deaths among Black Kentuckians in 2023 was 68.3 per 100,000, which was 52% greater than the white rate of 45 per 100,000.

The age group with the most overdose deaths was 35-to-44-year-olds, with 571, but the number was 13.4% less than in 2022.

In that year, 2,135 Kentuckians died of drug overdoses. The decline of 9.8% “represents 151 families whose loved ones still have a chance to recover,” said Dr. Jody Jaggers, the Kentucky Pharmacy Education and Research Foundation's director of public health education.

Jaggers demonstrated how easy it is to use naloxone, which stops the effect of an overdose. "It's something that you can even teach a child to do," he said.

Known by the brand Narcan, the nasal spray is now easily available in generic form without a prescription. Jaggers said the key is getting it into the hands of people who are most likely to witness an overdose. 

The report says the state distributed 160,000 doses of Narcan in 2023, and Ingram indicated that the increased availability of naloxone was a factor in the 9.8% drop in overdose deaths. The state recently put up a website,, to help Kentuckians find it easily.

Among counties with 10 or more overdose deaths, for which overdose-death rates were calculated, the highest rates were in four counties that adjoin each other. Estill County had 27 overdose deaths for a top rate of 187 per 100,000 residents; second was Lee County, with 11 deaths for a rate of 155.9. Third was Breathitt County, which had 18 for a rate of 150.6. Fourth was Powell, which had 16 for a rate of 121.1. Fifth was Floyd, which nearly adjoins Breathitt; it had 35 deaths for a rate of 109.9 per 100,000.

Other counties with rates higher than 60 per 100,000 (in purple on the map below) were Bourbon, 85.9; Boyd, 94.2; Carter, 90.4; Clark, 72.9; Clay, 68.9; Franklin, 61.9; Garrard, 61.9; Jefferson, 66.3; Knott, 100; Lincoiln, 76.4; Madison, 72.1; Montgomery, 62.8; Perry, 93.3; Pike, 74.5; Rockcastle, 91.8; Rowan, 94.9; Wayne, 59.8; and Whitley, 59.3.

Counties with rates lower than those, but higher than the state average of 45.9 per 100,000, were Bell, 50.7; Boyle, 56.8; Bullitt, 51.6; Harlan, 57.3; Jessamine, 56.2; Johnson, 59.3; Laurel, 54; and Taylor, 50.1.

Map from state report, adapted by Kentucky Health News

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