FRANKFORT, Ky. ( Associated Press) – Fatal drug deaths rose nearly 15% in Kentucky last year, exceeding 2,000 deaths as increased use of fentanyl – a powerful synthetic opioid – resulted in a record death toll in the state, according to a report which was released Monday.
The report showed that 2,250 Kentuckians died of drug overdose in 2021 – a continuing plague plaguing rural provinces and the state’s largest cities. It was the first time the Bluegrass state had surpassed 2,000 drug-related deaths in a single year, said Van Ingram, executive director of the State Office for Drug Control Policy.
The state’s rising death toll reflects the country’s growing overdose epidemic. Last year, more than 100,000 Americans died for the first time in a 12-month period from drug overdoses, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, with about two-thirds of those deaths linked to fentanyl and other synthetic drugs.
In Kentucky, fentanyl was identified in nearly 73% of overdose deaths last year, according to Monday’s report.
“We have never seen one drug so common in the toxicological reports of overdose deaths,” Ingram said in a telephone interview.
Overdose deaths are often attributed to more than one drug. Some people take multiple drugs and fentanyl is increasingly being cut into other drugs, often without the buyers’ knowledge, officials say.
“I spoke to a drug task force director last week who said, ‘We find fentanyl in everything,'” Ingram said.
The Republican leader of the US Senate, Mitch McConnell, who over the years has sent large sums of federal money to his home state of Kentucky to combat his drug abuse problems, said in a recent column that fentanyl crosses the country’s southern border “flooded”.
“Law enforcement leaders across the Commonwealth tell me that, in order to combat overdose deaths, our number one priority must be to prevent fentanyl from entering our country through Mexico illegally,” McConnell said.
Government officials also pointed to the availability of powerful, inexpensive methamphetamine as another factor in Kentucky’s latest rise in drug-related deaths.
The highest number of drug overdose deaths in 2021 occurred among Kentuckians between the ages of 35-44, the report said. There were 672 deaths in that age group last year, 17.5% more than the previous year.
The report on overdose deaths was released by the Kentucky Department of Justice and Public Safety and the Office of Drug Control Policy.
Kentucky has long been plagued by high levels of addiction to opioid painkillers.
In 2020, more than 1,960 Kentuckians died from drug overdoses, nearly 50% higher than the pre-pandemic death rate of 1,316 in 2019. Many people stopped their drug treatment efforts for fear of contracting COVID-19. This, coupled with the sense of isolation caused by the virus, has contributed to the 2020 increase in overdose deaths, government officials said at the time.
Now, treatment and recovery programs are once again increasing across Kentucky.
“We must work together every day to fund recovery programs and treatment options so that we can continue to address this plague and get our people the help they need,” Governor Andy Beshear said in a news release on Monday.
The governor said the death toll from overdose was “devastating and extremely heartbreaking”.
Ahead of Monday’s report, Beshear announced another step toward achieving a state-wide policy goal of providing free home-based services to help Kentuckians overcome drug addiction.
The state is working to establish cities and counties as “recovery-ready communities” – aimed at providing high-quality restoration programs across Kentucky, Beshear’s administration said.
“This drug epidemic in this country is going to be solved one community at a time,” Ingram said later Monday in announcing the program.
Kentucky’s Drug Control Policy Office is partnering with Volunteers of America to launch the Recovery Ready Community Certification Program. Cities and provinces can apply for certification when they offer transportation, support groups and employment services for free to people seeking treatment for drug or alcohol addiction. A measure introduced by Kentucky lawmakers last year created an advisory board tasked with creating the repair-ready certification.
Kentucky State Rep. Adam Bowling, the measure’s main sponsor, said Monday that the program “will empower cities and counties to provide a powerful lifeline to help Kentuckians build a life free of addiction.”
“Make no mistake, drug abuse is a crippling, dangerous disease that can be successfully prevented and treated,” Bowling said in a statement. “However, those who face it must have community support and access to treatment and resources, no matter where they live or how much money is in their bank account.”
People can call the KY Helpline at 833-8KY-HELP (833-859-4357) to speak one-on-one with a specialist who can connect Kentuckians with treatment.