By Secretary Eric Friedlander, Kentucky Cabinet for Health and Family Services
Together, We Are Stronger Than Opioids. It’s a uniting mantra we use as part of our Kentucky Opioid Response Effort to guide our purpose, affirm our hope, and call upon our greatest asset in this Commonwealth – one another. Together, we are building a system of care to reduce harms associated with opioid use and prevent misuse, connect more Kentuckians with evidence-based treatment, including medications for opioid use disorder, and expand recovery programs and services.
When COVID-19 hit Kentucky, new social and cultural norms were called for, distancing from each other, working from home or not at all, and loss of child care and at-home schooling had led to some people experiencing frequent and long bouts of isolation. We were fortunate in the Commonwealth to act quickly and decisively, united as the new Team Kentucky, battling a deadly global pandemic and flattened the curve together.
While we resolved to stop the spread of a dangerous virus, the stressors and anxieties of this new normal took their toll on our mental and behavioral health.
It wasn’t long before we started hearing reports nationally and locally from first responders and health departments. Emergency service calls were up. Orders for Narcan – the opioid overdose reversal drug- increased. Treatment providers voiced concern, wanting to safely keep people in treatment. Individuals in remission and recovery started to lose vital in-person connection and support, despite recovery groups’ innovation and creativity to provide virtual meeting spaces and other recovery initiatives. Overdoses in April were the highest reported since 2017 when the opioid crisis was at its peak and remained elevated in the ensuing months. These reports coalesced to confirm what service providers have been concerned about since the pandemic began.
The current environment poses unique challenges for anyone struggling with substance use. Substance use weakens the immune system and inhaled substances can damage lungs, leading to a more severe course of illness. In addition, a changing drug supply contaminated by synthetic opioids such as fentanyl dramatically increases the risk of overdose.
Vigilance and protective measures are essential to save lives right now and each of us can take action. Similar to CPR training, we urge Kentuckians to be trained and to carry Narcan, a medication used to reverse opioid-related overdoses. The website https://odcp.ky.gov/Stop-Overdoses/ can help connect individuals with pharmacies and harm reduction programs ready to supply the live-saving medication.
We also encourage everyone to become familiar with the state’s online provider locator, findhelpnowky.org, to help those in need to find treatment. Identify mutual aid groups for family and friends who are supporting those struggling with substance use.
At the state level, we continue to advance telemedicine and have adopted policy changes to support its utilization. We suspended the requirement for prior authorizations for behavioral and substance use services in Medicaid. We’re also committed to ensuring access to health coverage for all Kentuckians so that payment will not be a barrier.
Just 12 months ago, we were encouraged by 15% reduction in overdose deaths. We knew our work was far from over, but this was an indicator of progress. More people were getting access to prevention and harm reduction services, more treatment providers were prescribing medications for opioid use disorder and providing evidence-based practices, and stigma around substance use was beginning to change.
This point in time has created new challenges to maintaining progress. It has also reminded us that our recovery as a state is a work in progress, just as any individual’s recovery, because addiction is a chronic and complex disease. Let’s use the challenges before us as opportunities for change and advocacy. Let’s build back better.
We have long been aware of the resilience of individuals and families affected substance use disorder. We have watched so many adapt to these uncertain times and access services differently, ask for assistance with accessing technology and other resources, and go to any length to participate in their treatment and recovery, many of them doing so while caring for and homeschooling children and working or navigating loss of employment and other financial challenges.
We owe it to our fellow Kentuckians to not give up, not be discouraged, and not stop believing that change and recovery are possible. Let’s acknowledge the challenges we are facing and commit to overcoming them – together. Because that is how we are stronger than opioids.
To access treatment services, visit Kentucky’s treatment locator, findhelpnowky.org, or call Kentucky’s treatment hotline. For additional information about treatment or substance use disorder, contact the Kentucky Help Statewide Call Center to speak with a screening and referral specialist Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 5:30 p.m, EST/EDT at 1-877-318-1871.
After hours and need assistance? Call The Kentucky Opioid and Assistance Resources Hotline (KY-OAR) at 1-800-854-6813. For more information about Kentucky’s harm reduction programs, including locations and contact information, visit KYSSP.KY.GOV.