LOUISVILLE, Ky. — While Kentucky and the rest of the world focuses on COVID-19, something else has been lurking in the shadows and gaining strength — the opioid epidemic.

A large cross-sectional study published in JAMA Psychiatry found that emergency department visit rates for opioid use were up 28.8% year over year.

Dr. Chris Stewart from the University of Louisville School of Medicine said that the opioid crisis didn’t disappear when the COVID-19 pandemic started, but rather tightened its grip.

“It didn’t just go away, it seems to be getting worse,” Dr. Stewart said. “We have unfortunately possibly lost ground where we had made progress in reducing opioid overdose deaths in Kentucky and in the United States.”

In 2019, Kentucky recorded 1,316 drug overdose deaths. In 2020, from January to September, the state reported 1,454 drug overdose deaths according to the Kentucky Cabinet for Health and Family Services.

Michelle McGinnis, the chief clinical officer for Landmark Recovery in Louisville, said that the pandemic increased the barriers for addiction treatment in a lot of cases.

“There were a lot of things that kept addiction at bay or at least at a level that wasn’t life threatening are gone right now because we don’t have the same support we had pre-pandemic,” she said.

Stewart and McGinnis said increased screening efforts would help bolster the amount of patients that would seek addiction treatment. Dana Quesinberry from the Kentucky Injury Prevention and Research Center (KIPRC) helped gather surveillance data in the study that was published in JAMA Psychiatry in early February. She said there's a lot of work ahead for researchers to delve into the relationship between the pandemic and opioid crisis.

“We probably will spend the next 10 years trying to understand exactly what about the pandemic impacted overdose,” Quesinberry said.

Dr. Stewart advises families to get a prescription of narcan. It treats overdoses in emergency situations, which can help a friend or family member in a dire situation.