Isolation, closures and lethal drug supply likely contributed to the big increase in drug overdose deaths in Kentucky last year

An open pill bottle with round white pills spilling out, next to a small pile of white powder and a syringe with a small amount of brown liquid in it.
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The 49% increase in drug-overdose deaths in Kentucky in 2020 included a big jump among young people, Jasmine Demers reports for the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting.
Her object example is Isabell Slusher, 24, who came close to being one of those overdoses. She said she started using heroin when she was 18. Last year, she was forced into isolation during the Covid-19 pandemic, and isolation is a dangerous place to be for someone with a substance-use disorder.
“As addicts, you already isolate yourself. And then when the pandemic hit, you’re then being forced to not be around your loved ones,” Slusher told Demers. “You do start to get lonely. What better thing to do than just lay around and get as high as you can get?”

Slusher said she became depressed and felt hopeless, adding, “Who would even know I was gone? Who would miss me?”

Slusher entered treatment last November, and hasn’t used drugs since, reports Demers, but she adds that that wasn’t the case for everyone.

“Young Kentuckians experienced the highest increase in drug overdose deaths last year, according to the state’s overdose fatality report released this month. The report showed increases in mortality across all age groups, and overdose deaths grew overall by 49%. But the jump for young people was much higher: 127 people aged 15-24, 90% more overdose deaths than the previous year,” Demers reports.

The exact cause for this increase in drug overdose deaths is not clear, but many have blamed the isolation of the pandemic.
“They’re already dealing with a lot of uncertainty and just figuring out life,” Julie Duvall, CEO of Adult and Teen Challenge of Kentucky, told Demers. “Their peer groups are so important to them and all of that has kind of been disrupted.”

Duvall added that drug use among young people can be misinterpreted as rebellion or behavioral issues instead of a deeper problem, and that people tell them that they start experimenting with drugs as a way to cope with life.

State records show that over the last five years, increases or decreases in overdose deaths have correlated with the number of people seeking emergency care, but in 2020 there were more deaths than emergency room visits, Demers reports.

“In 2020, emergency department visits for nonfatal drug overdoses increased statewide by just 13%, compared to the 49% increase in total overdose deaths, according to the Kentucky Injury Prevention and Research Center. For young people, the discrepancy is even wider — emergency room visits increased by 10.5% while overdose deaths jumped by 90%,” Demers writes.

Duvall told Demers that her treatment program hasn’t seen an increase in admissions. “So, what that tells me is they’re suffering in isolation at home or wherever they are and not reaching out for help,” she said.
Another challenge has been restrictions and closures during the pandemic that have made finding recovery options even harder.
Slusher told Demers she came into treatment through a court order after being arrested for violating her federal probation. The judge sent her to Adult and Teen Challenge of Kentucky.
“I think maybe if I didn’t get locked up that day, I know that I probably wouldn’t be here,” she said.
Courtney Duerksen, 24, who is in treatment with Slusher, told Demers that she also felt the impact of that isolation. But five months into recovery, Duerksen offered this advice for people with substance use disorders.
“Make sure that you’re reaching out if you need help. Make sure you’re talking to someone,” she said. “Because that’s one thing that I didn’t do. I isolated to the fullest. And if I needed help, I didn’t call anyone.”
Another contributor to the increase in overdose deaths during the pandemic was the lethality of the drug supply, with fentanyl detected in 71% of the overdose deaths, Demers reports.
Last year, 1,964 people died of a drug overdose in Kentucky, and about 29% of them were 35 to 44 years old. Kentucky had the third-highest increase of overdose deaths in the nation in 2020, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
And it seems to be getting even worse this year, according to Dana Quesinberry, public health policy and program evaluator for the Kentucky Injury Prevention Research Center.
“There had been a hope … that once vaccines became available and we’re reintegrating our society that we would see a decline in overdose deaths, and we are not seeing that,” she said.
And while the data is important, Quesinberry told Demers that it’s about more than just numbers.
“Every person who has died, every person who has had a non-fatal overdose, every person who has suffered with substance use disorder is somebody’s parent, somebody’s child, somebody’s brother, sister, coworker, neighbor,” she said. “That’s why prevention and harm reduction services and support for them are very important.”
Kentuckians can call 1-833-8KY-HELP (1-833-859-4357) to speak with a specialist about substance use treatment options and available resources. To find openings at addiction treatment facilities, you can also visit
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