FRANKFORT, Ky. — Kentucky’s opioid crisis worsened during the COVID-19 pandemic, claiming 1,964 Kentuckians’ lives in 2020, a 49% increase from 2019. The Kentucky Office of Drug Control Policy, which compiled the data in the agency's 2020 Overdose Fatality Report, called substance misuse “one of the most critical public health and safety issues facing Kentucky.” 

What You Need To Know

  • 1,964 Kentuckians died from overdose in 2020, a 49 percent increase from 2019

  • The 2020 Overdose Fatality Report attributes the increase to the pandemic and a "significant rise" in fentanyl and its analogues

  • Recovery advocates say the pandemic cut off healthy connections that are crucial to the recovery of individuals with a substance use disorder

  • Fentanyl was detected in more than 70 percent of drug overdoses in Kentucky, and experts say many users don't even know they're taking it


“I expected to see the increase because I've seen it firsthand,” said Matt Brown, Senior Vice President of Administration at Addiction Recovery Care (ARC), an organization that offers residential and outpatient treatment options across its network of more than 30 addiction treatment centers in Eastern and Central Kentucky. “We've not even been able to go a week at a time almost it seems like without knowing of someone who lost the fight against addiction.”

The Office of Drug Control Policy attributed the increase in overdose deaths to the COVID-19 pandemic and an influx of fentanyl and fentanyl analogues. 

“The interruption of routine for those in recovery, the sense of isolation, economic concerns and anxiety all contributed to the dramatic increase recorded,” the report said of the pandemic’s toll on those struggling with addiction. 

Brown agreed the many unusual circumstances and restrictions in 2020 played a detrimental role in the recovery of many Kentuckians. He said addiction is a disease of isolation; the pandemic made it worse by cutting off the healthy connections that are vital to one’s recovery.

“COVID, in all of the factors that occurred, with social distancing and preventing the spread of the pandemic, really kind of destabilized the support networks of those who were either in early recovery or who were having difficulty coping with a pandemic, and I believe it created a perfect storm, or an imperfect storm, of events that resulted in the increase in relapses and overdoses,” Brown said. 

The report found the prevalence of illicit fentanyl also continues to pose a deadly threat, noting a “significant rise” in the drug and its analogues within the drug supply. Fentanyl was involved in more than 70 percent of Kentucky’s overdose deaths.

Brown said many users don’t even know they’re taking fentanyl, adding that he knows of several people who have purchased what they believed to be Xanax or other types of pills that were actually fentanyl and resulted in overdose. 

“Today using drugs is a game of Russian roulette. It's truly this next time could be your last time,” said Brown. 

Such was the case for so many Kentuckians in 2020, and while the numbers are staggering, the human cost is one that will be felt by families for years to come. 

“The 1,964 [overdose deaths] — it's not a number on a page. It is somebody's mother, somebody's father, somebody's brother, sister, and there were so many hopes and dreams inside that number that are left unfulfilled. And it just really underscores the importance of the work that we do and other providers, and the rest of society as we all pull together to fight against addiction,” said Brown.


If you or a loved one are struggling with a substance use disorder: