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Despite Efforts, Experts Say Surge In Overdoses Not Likely To Slow

Kentucky Office of Drug Control Policy

A wave of overdoses in Louisville is troubling local health experts, police officials and elected leaders, alike.

The spike is killing residents and taxing local emergency first responders, who are worried about being exposed to drugs laced with hyper-potent, sometimes fatal, substances.

A Metro Council committee on Wednesday discussed the recent uptick in overdoses during a regularly scheduled meeting.

Leaders of the city's health department, police department and emergency services fielded questions from the five-member committee regarding concerns about the surge in drug use and overdoses.

And what the committee heard wasn't very promising.

"It's not going to go away," said Dr. Joanne Schulte, director of the Louisville Metro Department of Public Health and Wellness.

In fact, statistics show the problem is getting worse.

The first few weeks of 2017 paint a grim picture of the struggle Louisville is facing when it comes to opioid addiction.

Nearly 50 people have died from suspected overdoses so far this year, said Louisville Metro Police Major Eric Johnson. Just more than 200 people died in all of 2016, he said.

Furthermore, police officers have administered nearly 90 doses of the overdose antidote naloxone since the beginning of 2017, he said. That's a near 60 percent increase compared with the same time last year.

And just last week, emergency crews in Louisville reported 52 overdoses in a 32 hour span, said Jody Meiman, executive director of Louisville Metro Emergency Services. Those overdose victims came from 20 different ZIP codes, which he said serves as evidence the struggle against opioid addiction spans the city.

On average, crews report about 22 overdoses a day, Meiman said, which together represent a more than 30 percent increase than the same time last year.

To combat the mounting surge, said Schulte, the city's health director, Louisville needs to ramp up the continuum of care for addiction treatment and prevention.

"Everybody knows somebody who's got a substance abuse disorder," she said. "But we're not giving them the resources they need to get treated, so we need to do a better job of that."

No Clear Solution

Schulte said one step to tamp down drug abuse begins in the home or at the doctor's office.

"Tylenol, acetaminophen and ibuprophen have a purpose and they should be the first line of drugs for pain," she said.

And if a doctor prescribes an opioid to treat pain, question the need and duration of the prescription, she said.

"That's how (people) get started on this downward spiral," she said.

Beyond that, Schulte said residents need to be more proactive about cleaning out medicine cabinets of prescription pills they no longer need.

Schulte praised recent actions to provide needle exchanges and partnerships with federal law enforcement agencies to eradicate disease and drugs in Louisville.

"People need to realize that is a chronic medical condition, it changes the brain," she said. "People can be treated, they can lead successful lives, but you have to have treatment."

Jacob Ryan is the managing editor of the Kentucky Center for Investigative reporting. He's an award-winning investigative reporter who joined LPM in 2014. Email Jacob at jryan@lpm.org.

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