Fatal overdoses declined locally, statewide in 2018

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First responders say fatal numbers don’t tell the whole story of overdose prevalence

By Forrest Berkshire, Editor

Fatal overdoses in Nelson County dropped precipitously in 2018, outpacing a statewide trend of decreasing fatalities, according to numbers released on Wednesday.

There were six people who died of fatal drug overdoses last year in the county. That compares to 19 fatal overdoses in 2017 and 11 in 2016.

Fewer people dying was welcome news, but area first responders cautioned against taking it as an indication that opioid abuse is declining.

“We’re not seeing that much of a difference in (overdose) calls,” said Joe Prewitt, director of Nelson County EMS.

Prewitt credited the increased availability of the opioid antidote naloxone for the dropping mortality rate.

“I think it’s a direct result of people having access to Narcan,” he said, referring to naloxone by a popular brand name.

Firefighters and sheriff’s deputies also carry the antidote because they often reach a scene before EMS, and pharmacies and the addiction-support group United for Recovery have worked to increase the availability to the public.

But even with wider availability and increased awareness, accidental overdoses still happen.

The Standard reviewed all death record investigations with the Nelson County Coroner’s Office for 2018 and confirmed the six overdose fatalities. One of those fatal overdoses was a suicide where a 43-year-old white woman left a note, and another of a white 67-year-old man suffering from cancer might have been a suicide or might have been inadvertent, according to the investigations.

But others were plainly accidental.

Like the 31-year-old white man found dead kneeling on the floor of a public bathroom with a needle beside him, who had a history of opioid prescriptions. Blood results showed he had five times the maximum level of hydrocodone in his system.

And the 22-year-old white man with no history of prescriptions but a history of drug abuse who died in his living room. Medical examiners found three times the lethal amount of fentanyl in his blood test.

Other sources indicated improvement in drug overdoses in non-fatal instances.

All cases of overdoses in Nelson County were at their lowest level last year since 2015, according to the database maintained by the Kentucky Injury Prevention and Research Center. The database tracked 128 overall overdoses in 2018 in Nelson County, down from 155 in 2017 and 163 in 2016. Those numbers reflect all acute drug poisonings.

But those numbers could also be misleading because of people who overdose and are revived by naloxone who then do not seek treatment. The KIPRC’s database recorded 479 people who were categorized as “non-dependant abuse of drugs” in 2018, up from 208 in 2014.

Sheriff Ramon Pineiroa said good numbers are hard to come by.

“It’s harder to track now because people have the capabilities to help themselves without calling us or EMS,” he said.

State sees overall improvement in fatal overdoses

Statewide, there were 233 fewer drug overdose deaths in 2018 than the year prior. There were 1,033 lethal overdoses in 2018.

The state report singled out a few counties, including Nelson, for recognition in declining fatalities.

“The largest decrease in fatalities occurred in Jefferson County, where 89 fewer Kentucky residents died of overdoses in 2018 as compared to 2017. Kenton, Campbell, Nelson, and Jessamine counties combined to record 63 fewer overdose fatalities than reported the previous year.

Fentanyl and its analogues were the most lethal drugs, contributing to 786 of the overdose deaths, according to the report.

There was also an increase in deaths from methamphetamine.

But deaths from drugs such as heroin, alprazolam and gabapentin all declined.

“The numbers are trending down, but our state still faces incredible challenges,” said Kentucky Justice and Public Safety Cabinet Secretary John Tilley. “This crisis claimed more than 1,300 lives last year and inflicted untold heartbreak on our families and communities. I only hope the latest numbers serve as evidence that strong interventions and better access to treatment can and do save lives. We must continue our momentum in these areas, and I pray that all of Kentucky will join together on this front.”