LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- Kentucky and Indiana each saw significant increases in drug overdoses in 2021, according to new data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“We’ve never seen anything like this," said Seven Counties Addiction Services Vice President Marty Purdy, who's been working in addiction recovery for 30 years. “We’ve seen it play out, we watched overdoses occur throughout the community including clients walking in off the street and experiencing overdose here in our building.” 

Kentucky saw a 13.55% increase from December 2020 to December 2021, going from 2,104 reported overdose deaths to 2,389. Indiana saw a 21.53% increase, going from 2,267 deaths to 2,755.

When comparing 2019 to 2021 — the increase is significant. The Jefferson County Coroner’s office reported 379 overdose deaths in 2019, jumping to 604 deaths in 2020 and 617 deaths in 2021.

“In Jefferson County, it’s been like a 55% increase in overdose deaths," Purdy said. "Nationally, it's been a huge increase, but here locally we're one of the leading areas in the country for having it impact us in such a way ... (a) 55% increase is, again, unheard of." 

Nationally, the largest percentage increase from 2020 to 2021 came in Alaska, which saw a 73.46% increase from 146 deaths to 253. The largest total increase came in California, which saw 1,425 more overdose deaths in 2021 than 2020. 

More than 107,000 Americans died of drug overdoses in 2021, according to the new data, setting another tragic record in the nation's escalating overdose epidemic.

The provisional 2021 total translates to roughly one U.S. overdose death every 5 minutes. It marked a 15% increase from the previous record, set the year before. The CDC reviews death certificates and then makes an estimate to account for delayed and incomplete reporting.

Experts said the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the problem as lockdowns and other restrictions isolated those with drug addictions and made treatment harder to get.

“So much of treatment is based on relationships, you know, support recovery groups, things like that, that social distancing immediately wiped that out,” said Dr. Eric Yazel, Clark County's health officer. 

U.S. overdose deaths have risen most years for more than two decades. The increase began in the 1990s with overdoses involving opioid painkillers, followed by waves of deaths led by other opioids like heroin and — most recently — illicit fentanyl.

"It's the potency, you know, extremely small amounts can be fatal," Yazel said. "Nobody really knows what their tolerance is to a dose of fentanyl."

“It has shown up in ways, and in volume in ways, that we've never seen before," Purdy said. "It is a drug that shows up in so many ways, shapes, and forms that it's really difficult to know where the enemy is, so to speak."

Last year, according to CDC data, overdoses involving fentanyl and other synthetic opioids surpassed 71,000, up 23% from the year before. There also was a 23% increase in deaths involving cocaine and a 34% increase in deaths involving meth and other stimulants.

Overdose deaths are often attributed to more than one drug. Some people take multiple drugs and inexpensive fentanyl has been increasingly cut into other drugs, often without the buyers' knowledge, officials say.

"Individuals in the community often aren't aware that they're ingesting this drug, and so the risk factors are, again, huge. The fentanyl is showing up in ways that we've never seen it show up before in forms like compressed Ritalin, for example," said Purdy. "We're really working hard to get that information out there. So fentanyl, it has been responsible for over 70% of the overdose deaths that we're talking about and that's, you know ... disastrous."

Yazel and Purdy both agree that increasing access and education on opioid overdose-reversing drugs like Narcan and Naloxone is a key way to help prevent deaths.

"Some folks would argue that if you make those things available to folks who are struggling with addiction that it increases the risk of overdose, it's quite the opposite and it's absolutely saves lives," said Purdy. 

Advocates throughout Kentuckiana are working to get people re-engaged and connected to resources as the pandemic lessens, and educating the public as a whole to destigmatize the disease.

"Recovery organizations, businesses, elected officials, hospitals, all those things have to have to all work together to make a difference," Yazel said. "I'm proud of how our county's responded, but we still have a lot of things we can work on too and we'll continue to do so until we start chipping away at this." 

“You've got to be able to talk about this with people and be loving and accepting of this disease," Purdy said. "It's a devastating disease, and no one wakes up one day and chooses this life.” 

To see the CDC's state-by-state data, click here.

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