HIGHLAND HEIGHTS, Ky. — While Kentucky has suffered one of the worst spikes in opioid overdose deaths in the nation during the COVID-19 pandemic, a new $6 million grant from the federal government aims to combat the crisis.

What You Need To Know

  • Overdose deaths increased in Kentucky and around the nation during the pandemic

  • NKU is one of six substance abuse treatment programs in high-risk rural communities that received a $1 million grant to fight the opioid epidemic

  • McConnell announced the funding earlier this week

  • NKU's money will be used to target the Carroll County Detention Center to help people going through the justice system

The COVID- 19 pandemic has hit people who suffer from substance abuse disorder hard.

Across the nation, there’s been an increase in opioid overdoses, and overdose deaths, possibly as a result of increased isolation, said Valerie Hardcastle, who is the St. Elizabeth director for Northern Kentucky University’s Institute of Health Innovation and NKU’s vice president for Health Innovation.

It’s particularly bad in Kentucky.

“Overdoses increased by 53% in the Commonwealth of Kentucky, which makes us ranked second in the nation in terms of increases,” Hardcastle said.

The institute’s primary focus has been engaging with the rural counties of Northern Kentucky. The goal in broad terms, Hardcastle said, is twofold:

  1. Help improve the health care infrastructure for people suffering from substance abuse disorder, which can be minimal in rural areas. This includes getting doctors who can treat people with substance use disorder, and developing systems of transportation so people can access the care they need.
  2. Helping people develop a culture of health, and a deeper understanding of psychological, biological and social mechanisms for substance use disorder.

NKU is one of six substance abuse treatment programs in high-risk rural communities that U.S. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell announced would receive $1 million each from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) as part of the Rural Communities Opioid Response Program.

This initiative was established to reduce the morbidity and mortality of substance abuse by enhancing rural residents’ access to treatment.

McConnell said he worked to “mobilize federal government resources to address the state’s substance abuse crisis head-on with targeted prevention, treatment, and enforcement programs.”

“This past year, opioid overdose deaths surged across the country, driven by the isolation caused by the coronavirus pandemic and the flood of dangerous fentanyl coming across our borders. Kentucky has tragically suffered one of the worst spikes in overdose deaths in the nation. With today’s federal grant announcement, we are continuing our efforts to reverse this painful trend,” McConnell said.

Hardcastle said the money will be used to target the Carroll County Detention Center to help people going through the justice system.

“When you look at the percentage of people who are sitting in detention right now, somewhere between 85 and 90% of them have some sort of substance use disorder,” she said. “They’re popped for doing something probably just to help support their addiction. Something non-violent. They robbed a store, something like that, or they were selling drugs. They’re then sent to detention, but there’s no treatment for them there.”

When released, they go into probation and parole. Sometimes, a condition of probation and parole is receiving treatment, and sometimes it’s not, Hardcastle said. Even then, it’s a challenge, she said.

“Where do you go to get treatment if there isn’t any in your county? Particularly, if you don’t have transportation,” she said. “So what we want to do is help start providing counseling and treatment in the detention center itself, and then have that person be able to follow the detainee as they enter into probation and parole.”

The Institute for Health Innovation will also hire re-entry specialists and care coordinators to help people get the resources they need and reintegrate into society.

Hardcastle said it has a similar program in Owen County. She said many of the clients who have participated have gone into treatment and recovery.