Kentucky had second highest percentage increase in drug-overdose deaths in 2020, with biggest jump after pandemic hit

CDC graph shows overdose deaths for the previous 12 months, by month since January 2015

By Melissa Patrick

Kentucky Health News
Drug overdose deaths in Kentucky rose 54 percent in 2020, the second highest rate of increase in the nation, according to a new federal report.The preliminary data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows Kentucky had 2,104 overdose deaths in 2020, up from 1,369 in 2019.

The tiny state of Vermont was the only state with a higher rate of increase than Kentucky, at nearly 58%, after reporting 186 overdose deaths in 2020.

An interactive CDC graphic shows the total of Kentucky overdose deaths in the previous 12 months increased every month since September 2019, but there was a marked increase when the pandemic began. The biggest jump happened in May 2020, with an increase of 146 deaths over the previous 12-month period.

Nationwide, overdose deaths increased 29.4% from 2019 to 2020, based on provisional data, which says more than 92,000 overdose deaths were reported in 2020. The CDC predicts the actual total is likely to be 93,331, the highest annual number ever recorded.

The report also includes data about drug-overdose deaths by drug or class of drugs. In Kentucky, it shows that opioids and synthetic opioids, such as fentanyl, were the two main contributors for overdose deaths in 2020, with opioids involved in 1,710 of the deaths and synthetic opioids involved in 1,523 of them.

CDC graph, adapted by Kentucky Health News

To explain the surge, experts pointed to the pandemic.

“Stress and isolation are constant challenges for people with substance use disorders,” said Sonya Carrico, senior program officer with Interact for Health, a Cincinnati foundation. “Combine that with reduced access to syringe services programs, emergency care during an overdose and peer support, and it’s not surprising that a significant number of people struggled with relapse, or even worse, experienced an overdose during the pandemic.”

The National Conference of State Legislatures reports several likely reasons for an increase in overdose deaths during the pandemic, including disruptions in the illegal drug market, leading users of drugs to buy them from new and unfamiliar sources; less ability to obtain naloxone, the opioid overdose reversal drug; and barriers to treatment for substance-use disorders.

People who are struggling with drug abuse or who are concerned about a family member’s substance use can search for treatment providers at

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