Opioid Overdoses, Death Rate Skyrocket in Louisville

By Paul Gaita 04/14/17

Fentanyl and fentanyl mixed with heroin were the leading causes of death in over half of the overdose fatalities in 2016.

EMTs rescuing a patient outside of an ambulance.

Health and law enforcement officials in Louisville, Kentucky have been battling opioid-related overdoses and fatalities for several years, but recent statistics show that the numbers have risen dramatically between 2016 and 2017.

The number of fatalities from heroin, fentanyl and other opioids reached 86 between January and April in 2017—a substantial jump from the same period in 2016, when just 46 overdose deaths were reported. Paramedics and other first responders reported fielding more than 2,300 calls for aid for ODs between January and March 2017—a 52% increase from last year's report during the same period, where just over 1,500 calls were answered.

The death and overdose tolls might have been greater had first responders not had access to the overdose reversal drug, naloxone, which Louisville Metro Police reported using on 190 people as of April 7.

Overdose death rates have climbed steadily in the last few years; according to data from the Jefferson County Coroner's Office, 362 overdose deaths were reported in 2016, while just 270 were reported the year before. Fentanyl and fentanyl mixed with heroin were the leading causes of death (64%) in these cases, and its prevalence has spurred Louisville police and first responders to carry a stronger four-milligram dose of naloxone to counter this more potent drug.

Metro Louisville Emergency Medical Services reported using naloxone on more than 2,200 patients in 2016, another sizable spike from the previous year's statistics which showed naloxone was used on just 908 patients.

The new statistics are the latest in a series of incidents that have left Louisville in a state of siege from opioids, including a week in February 2017 which found the city's EMS fielded more than 150 overdose calls in four days. When asked by the city's Community Affairs, Housing, Health and Education Committee if Louisville's opioid addiction problem will cease or run its course at any point soon, Dr. Joann Schulte, who heads the Metro Department of Public Health and Wellness, answered with an emphatic "no."

Schulte has urged hospitals to conduct tests on overdose patients in order to determine which drugs were involved in the incidents, and has advised residents to dispose of unneeded medication at police-sponsored "take back" events and purchase their own supply of naloxone. Free training on the proper use of the opioid antagonist is available from the Kentucky Harm Reduction Coalition.

Please read our comment policy. - The Fix

Paul Gaita lives in Los Angeles. He has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, Variety, LA Weekly, Amazon.com and The Los Angeles Beat, among many other publications and websites.