Report shows a drop in drug overdose deaths in Kentucky but governor says the fight is far from over

Gov. Andy Beshear says drug overdose deaths in Kentucky fell nearly 10% in 2023

ByBRUCE SCHREINER Associated Press
June 6, 2024, 5:50 PM

FRANKFORT, Ky. -- Drug overdose deaths in Kentucky fell nearly 10% in 2023, marking a second straight annual decline in the fight against an addiction epidemic that's far from over, Gov. Andy Beshear said Thursday.

The number of fatal overdoses statewide dropped below 2,000, as officials credited a comprehensive response that includes treatment and prevention as well as illegal drug seizures by law enforcement.

“Even while we celebrate progress, there’s a lot of heartbreak and pain because of this epidemic that continues,” the Democratic governor said at a statehouse ceremony.

Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell — who has steered huge sums of federal funding to his home state to combat its addiction woes — said the report is a “cause for hope.” The substance abuse crisis hit “communities in every zip code across the nation” with Kentucky among the hardest hit, he said.

“We still have a lot of work left to do in the commonwealth, and we have to stop the flow of drugs at our Southern border, and I’ll continue to fight to ensure Kentucky remains at the forefront of our national response,” McConnell said in a statement Thursday.

A total of 1,984 Kentuckians died last year from a drug overdose, down 9.8% from the prior year, according to the 2023 Kentucky Drug Overdose Fatality Report. Fentanyl — a powerful synthetic opioid — remained the biggest culprit, accounting for 79% of overdose deaths in 2023, the report said.

“If we can ever get a handle on that, I think the success we could have is unbelievable,” said Van Ingram, executive director of the state Office of Drug Control Policy.

Kentucky's Republican-dominated legislature passed a sweeping measure this year that's meant to combat crime. A key section took aim at the prevalence of fentanyl by creating harsher penalties when its distribution results in fatal overdoses

Methamphetamine use was another key factor in fatal overdoses.

Among various age groups, the highest number of overdose deaths last year was among Kentuckians in the 35- to 44-year-old group at 571, a drop of 13% from 2022, the report said.

One worrisome trend is the increased number of overdose deaths among Black people in the state, Beshear said. The latest report showed a 5% increase, down from the 22% increase in last year's report, he said.

“We are committed to working with community partners and leaders to reverse this trend, and we are going to use recently received grant funding to increase education and outreach efforts,” he said.

In 2022, Kentucky’s overall drug overdose deaths fell by 5% from the prior year. It marked the first decline since 2018.

Nationally, about 107,500 people died of overdoses in the U.S. last year, including both American citizens and non-citizens in the country at the time they died, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated recently. That’s down 3% from 2022, when there were an estimated 111,000 such deaths, the agency said.

In Kentucky, 160,000 doses of Narcan — the drug that can save someone’s life during an opioid overdose — were distributed last year, Ingram said, adding that he hopes even more doses are circulated this year.

Ingram praised funding from state lawmakers for substance abuse treatment and prevention efforts. Kentucky is at the forefront nationally in the per-capita number of residential drug and alcohol treatment beds, Beshear said. The governor also pointed to the state’s Treatment Access Program, which allows people without health insurance to enter residential treatment.

“The ability to pay is no longer an obstacle to treatment," Beshear said. "We can get any Kentuckian who needs help in treatment virtually immediately.”

Several leaders from addiction treatment agencies attended the statehouse ceremony Thursday. The governor praised the Kentuckians involved in grassroots efforts to combat addiction.

“Your fight for the inches that become the feet that become the miles of progress is saving lives," he said.

The 2023 Kentucky Overdose Fatality Report is compiled by the Kentucky Injury Prevention and Research Center, using data from the Office of Vital Statistics, the Office of the State Medical Examiner and Kentucky’s coroners. These numbers are subject to change, the governor's office said.