FRANKFORT, Ky. – Fatal drug overdoses rose nearly 15% in Kentucky last year, surpassing 2,000 deaths as the increased use of fentanyl — a powerful synthetic opioid — resulted in a record death toll in the state, according to a report released Monday.
The report showed that 2,250 Kentuckians died from drug overdoses in 2021 — an ongoing scourge plaguing rural counties and the state's largest cities alike. It was the first time the Bluegrass State surpassed 2,000 drug overdose deaths in a single year, said Van Ingram, executive director of the state Office of Drug Control Policy.
The state's rising death count mirrored the nation’s escalating overdose epidemic. Last year, for the first time, more than 100,000 Americans died of drug overdoses over a 12-month period, 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, Monday's report said.
“We’ve never seen one drug this prevalent in the toxicology reports of overdose fatalities,” Ingram said in a phone interview.
Overdose deaths are often attributed to more than one drug. Some people take multiple drugs and fentanyl is increasingly cut into other drugs, often without the buyers’ knowledge, officials say.
“I talked to a drug task force director last week who said, ‘We’re finding fentanyl in everything,’" Ingram said.
U.S. Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, who has steered large sums of federal money to his home state of Kentucky over the years to combat its drug-abuse woes, said in a recent column that fentanyl has “flooded” across the nation's southern border.
“Law enforcement leaders across the commonwealth tell me that, to curb overdose deaths, our number one priority should be to stop fentanyl from illegally entering our country through Mexico,” McConnell said.
State officials also pointed to the availability of potent, inexpensive methamphetamine as another factor in Kentucky's latest rise in drug overdose deaths.
The highest number of drug overdose deaths in 2021 occurred among Kentuckians aged 35-44, the report said. There were 672 deaths in that age group last year, up 17.5% from the prior year.
The overdose fatality report was released by the Kentucky Justice and Public Safety Cabinet and the Office of Drug Control Policy.
Kentucky has long been plagued by high rates of addiction to opioid painkillers.
In 2020, more than 1,960 Kentuckians died from drug overdoses, up nearly 50% from the pre-pandemic death count of 1,316 in 2019. Many people discontinued their drug treatment efforts out of fear of contracting COVID-19. That, along with the sense of isolation caused by the virus, contributed to the 2020 surge in overdose deaths, state officials said then.
Now, treatment and recovery programs are again ramping up across Kentucky.
“Every day we must work together to fund recovery programs and treatment options so that we can continue to address this scourge and get our people the help they need,” Gov. Andy Beshear said Monday in a news release.
The governor said the overdose death toll was "devastating and extremely heartbreaking.”
Ahead of Monday's report, Beshear announced another step toward achieving a statewide policy goal of offering no-cost services close to home to help Kentuckians overcome drug addiction.
The state is working to establish cities and counties as “Recovery Ready Communities” — aimed at providing high-quality recovery 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 touting the program.
Kentucky's Office of Drug Control Policy is partnering with Volunteers of America to launch the Recovery Ready Community Certification Program. Cities and counties can apply for certification upon offering transportation, support groups and employment services at no cost for people seeking treatment for drug or alcohol addiction. A measure enacted last year by Kentucky lawmakers created an advisory council assigned to create the recovery ready certification.
Kentucky state Rep. Adam Bowling, the measure's lead sponsor, said Monday that the program will “empower cities and counties to provide a powerful lifeline to help Kentuckians build a life free from addiction.”
“Make no mistake, substance abuse is a crippling, dangerous disease that can be prevented and treated successfully,” Bowling said in a statement. “However, those who face it must have community support and access to treatment and resources, regardless of where they live or how much money is in their bank account.”
People can call the KY Help Call Center at 833-8KY-HELP (833-859-4357) to speak one-on-one with a specialist who can connect Kentuckians to treatment.