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More than 1,300 overdose deaths reported in Kentucky in 2019

In the wake of COVID-19, we have all become acutely aware of numbers. We anticipate Governor Beshear’s daily report of Kentucky’s new cases, hospitalizations, positivity rates, and deaths due to the virus.  We watch the news for national and international numbers. And, each day, we hope that these numbers decrease, and give us a sign that we are taking the right steps to deal with this pandemic.
In the past few days, in the midst of COVID-19 headlines, we received a report of some other numbers.  It’s a report we mustn’t ignore, even though the virus numbers continue to take center stage.  The Office of Drug Control Policy in Frankfort released the 2019 fatal drug overdose death statistics.  Unlike the COVID-19 daily numbers, it takes a while to get overdose death statistics.  Coroners’ reports have to be submitted to Frankfort from around the state, and collated into a comprehensive report which is then release to the public.
What we got is concerning.  Deaths of Kentuckians from fatal drug overdoses rose in 2019, after dropping in 2018.  A total of 1316 deaths by drug overdose were reported in 2019.  This compares to 1247 in 2018.   Boyle County resident numbers who died by drug overdose rose as well, compared to 2018.  Across the state, extremely potent fentanyl and fentanyl analogs continue to be a killer.  And, methamphetamine is increasingly combined with opioids to contribute to the deaths.
After seeing these numbers, the first reaction of many on the front lines of fighting the local drug crisis might be discouragement.  After numbers improved in 2018, we hoped for continuing improvement in 2019.  We wanted to see a validation that good problem solving was occurring.
The better immediate response to the report must be to look behind the numbers, and to offer condolences to the families and friends of those who have died.  Much grief that won’t end tomorrow is represented in those 1316 Kentucky deaths.  Many children will finish their childhoods without a parent.  Many first responders will not forget being called to a scene with a tragic ending.  And, many parents will grieve the loss of their children until the day they die.  In short, lots of people are hurting as a result of these deaths.
August 31 was International Overdose Awareness Day.  Begun in Melbourne, Australia in 2001, this day is lifted up as “A Time to Remember, A Time to Act”.  It comes at an appropriate time for Kentuckians, given the just released overdose numbers.  It is a day devoted to a two-pronged approach to bringing awareness about drug overdoses – grieving and remembering the lives of those lost, and making a commitment to actively help prevent future deaths.  Because of COVID-19 restrictions, Boyle County Agency for Substance Abuse Policy, did not host a community event as we have in previous years.
However, each of us can commemorate the spirit of this day by choosing to do something positive:  1) Pray for, and express our caring to those who have lost a friend or family member to an overdose; 2) If we believe we have a substance use problem, seek help for ourselves;  3) Know how to use naloxone (Narcan), and what to do if someone overdoses in our presence; 4) Support our friends and family who are in recovery from a substance use disorder; 5) Safely secure the medications in our homes, and properly dispose of old, unused substances; 6) Report to local law enforcement any suspicions of illegal drug activity – “See something, Say something”; and 7) Help a kid learn substance-free coping skills.
In his 2018 book, “American Overdose”, author Chris McGreal wrote that America was for far too long “blind to the unfolding devastation” of the opioid drug crisis and loss of lives, and that silence was a common response.  As we reflect on Kentucky’s 2019 overdose death numbers, blindness and silence are not the answer.   Supporting those who grieve, acknowledging openly that we have more work to do, planning that work based on the best information available, and then, doing the work, are appropriate responses to overdose death numbers.

Kathy L. Miles, Coordinator
Boyle County Agency for Substance Abuse Policy, Inc.