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Jefferson County sees 'unprecedented' spike in overdose deaths this year

The increase in overdose deaths is the highest in five years, according to Scott Russ, Chief Deputy of Investigation for Jefferson Co. Coroner's Office.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — From 40211 to 40299, in homeless camps, alleyways, and in homes, overdose deaths are taking place all over Jefferson County. 

"They're in every zip code just about," Scott Russ, Chief Deputy of Investigation for Jefferson Co. Coroner's Office, said. "Early-mid teens to senior citizens, it's all over the spectrum."

(A list of addiction recovery resources can be found at the bottom of this article.)

Russ said the coroner's office tracks every death in the county, and the causes. He said this year is seeing an "unprecedented" rate of overdose deaths.

"Every way you could possibly found somebody, we have probably found somebody that way before unfortunately," Russ said. "Some days we may have six or seven and then we may skip a day or two but it averages over the year about 1.8 per day."

Russ said there's already been nearly 500 confirmed overdose deaths, with nearly 100 toxicology reports pending. By the end of the year, Russ believes the total overdose deaths will be over 600.

"I'm not surprised by those numbers. Our need for services over the past year throughout the pandemic has drastically increased," Carson Economy with Seven Counties Services said. 

Mirroring what the coroner's office is seeing, Economy said calls to Seven Counties Services' crisis line have drastically spiked this year. Although calls to the crisis line include risk of suicide and other situations as well. 

"We're averaging about 250 calls a day. Following the Thanksgiving weekend, that increased to about 1200," Economy said. 

The increase in overdose deaths is the highest in five years, according to Russ. Jefferson Co. reported 218 in 2015.

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"I probably couldn't even pinpoint one specific reason. There's probably so many factors that it would be impossible to maybe pinpoint it just to the pandemic," Russ said. "The vast majority of times there's so much fentanyl in it that that's what we're seeing as the cause of most of these deaths in overdoses."

Over 70% of the deaths Russ estimates are linked to Fentanyl. Especially this year, Economy also points to the pandemic as a cause for the spike.

"There's a discrepancy between what keeps us safe during the pandemic and what we know is effective for individuals in recovery," she said. 

Social isolation and lack of in-person services, all caused by the pandemic, Economy said, have played a role.

"It has been difficult for a lot of people to navigate that and then to re-establish programs of recovery that work for them," she said. 

Despite the ways coronavirus has changed addiction recovery programs, Seven Counties Services urges anyone struggling to reach out for resources. They are offering both virtual and in-person services currently. 

"Know that it's okay to ask for help. It's okay to reach out. Our crisis lines are open 24/7 and we can schedule next-day appointments," Economy said.

Update: As of New Year's Eve, Russ confirmed 528 overdose deaths in Jefferson County. He said another 75 or so are pending toxicology test results.

Seven Counties Services:

  • 24/7 line for Addiction Help: (502) 583-3951
  • 24-Hour Crisis Line: (502) 589-4313
  • Mental Health Appointments: (502) 589-1100 (for people who need an appointment but aren’t experiencing an immediate crisis)
  • Substance Use Appointments: (502) 583-3951
  • National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: (800) 273-8255
  • https://sevencounties.org

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