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Opioid overdose death rates are rising among Black Kentuckians

People stand together in downtown Louisville, holding signs with messages like "No more drug war" and "Treatment over incarceration."
Morgan Watkins
Louisville Public Media
People gathered in downtown Louisville in August for a rally for International Overdose Awareness Day. They held signs with messages like "No more drug war" and marched through the streets in honor of Kentuckians who have died from drug overdoses.

Kentucky’s Commission on Race and Access to Opportunity spent almost an hour Tuesday hearing testimony on the state’s overdose rates and how people of color are especially hard-hit.

The year after the onset of the pandemic marked the first time Black Kentuckians were dying from opioid-related overdoses at rates higher than white Kentuckians, according to Bryan Hubbard of the Kentucky Opioid Abatement Advisory Commission.

In 2021, he said the rate of opioid-related deaths among Black people in Kentucky was 50.2 individuals per 100,000 in population, compared to 42.7 per 100,000 for white Kentuckians.

Hubbard, the opioid commission’s executive director, discussed the “evolving nature and scale” of Kentucky’s crisis at Tuesday’s meeting in Frankfort. The board oversees the distribution of hundreds of millions of dollars the state will gradually receive through settlements with companies involved in the crisis.

For many years, Hubbard said opioids have affected mainly poor, working-class white families in Appalachia. A 2023 report presented to the Appalachian Regional Commission found the region’s opioid-related mortality rate was 63% higher than the rest of the U.S.

“Since the outset of the epidemic, opioids had affected mostly poor, working-class white families in Appalachia,” Hubbard said Tuesday. “But data revealed that in 2021, the impact of opioids began to reach well beyond Appalachia to urban, poor and working-class Black families.”

He said the Opioid Abatement Advisory Commission worked with Black faith and civic leaders to host town halls in Louisville, Lexington and west Kentucky. The commission then funded grants to support hard-hit communities, including west Louisville.

The Kentucky Harm Reduction Coalition is among the initial grant recipients. Its executive director, Shreeta Waldon, also spoke at Tuesday’s Commission on Race meeting in Frankfort.

Waldon, as well as VOCAL-KY director and Louisville Metro Council candidate Shameka Parrish-Wright, talked to the commission about how the opioid crisis is linked to poverty and to people’s inadequate access to housing, transportation and other resources.

“At the root of it, we all want to see people improve, we want to see people healthy. But I’m sitting here to say that we have to not negate how intersectionality really plays a part in this,” Waldon said.

She also noted the disparity in Kentucky’s recent fatal overdose rates.

The state saw about a 5% decrease in overall overdose deaths last year compared to 2021, state data show. However, overdose deaths increased about 8% among Black Kentuckians.

She said the death rates rose across all communities of color.

“So tell me who is making progress?” she asked.

Collectively, overdose deaths in Kentucky remain higher than pre-pandemic levels, and most of the deaths involve opioids.

Waldon encouraged commission members to ask the right questions as they consider what policies or initiatives to support, such as: How does this impact the communities most affected by the crisis?

She recommended devoting more funding to prevention initiatives such as activities for youth, and suggested reimagining “what it looks like to put people over policy.”

Sen. David Givens, R-Greensburg, said he had a “lightbulb moment” during Tuesday’s discussion. He’s the Commission on Race’s co-chair.

“I wrote down this sentence: We can’t solve our overdose problems in the Commonwealth today without addressing joblessness, poverty, homelessness and hopelessness,” he said.

Morgan is LPM's health reporter. Email Morgan at mwatkins@lpm.org.

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