The New York Times reported in April that more than 87,000 Americans died of drug overdoses during the 12-month period that ended in September 2020. It pointed out that the biggest jump in overdose deaths took place last spring, when fear and stress were rampant and job losses were multiplying amidst the strictest of lockdown measures.

In Kentucky, overdose deaths rose by 50% from September 2019 to September 2020, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported.

Although it’s hard to gauge exactly how many overdose deaths can be linked directly to the coronavirus pandemic, professionals have no doubt that the pandemic played a major role in these alarming numbers. The New York Times went on to name West Virginia and Kentucky as the hardest-hit states when it comes to opioid deaths, noting that we have long been at the top of the list.

“In response to these overwhelmingly distressing statistics, the state prevention branch applied for and received additional funding to conduct opioid toolkit trainings in our communities and to participate in the FDA’s ‘Remove the Risk’ campaign, which encourages the safe removal of unused opioid pain medicines from people’s homes,” said Amy Hutchinson, director of LifeSkills Regional Prevention Center.

LifeSkills prevention specialists Kelli Smith and Brittany Young were equally involved in what became a focused flurry of activities.

“We worked hard to complete a total of nine opioid toolkit trainings, held throughout our communities, virtually over Zoom,” Smith said. “These meetings reached 150 people, including municipal/government employees, business professionals and faith-based leaders. Each participant received a kit containing Narcan; a medication lock bag; nontoxic medication disposal tools, CPR barrier masks; nitrile gloves; and suicide information.”

Hutchinson and her team worked closely with area development districts, chambers of commerce, ministerial associations and community coalitions to market the toolkit trainings.

The “Remove the Risk” campaign reached about 150,000 people in the region.

“We placed ads in the local newspapers, scheduled weekly posts on our Regional Prevention Center Facebook page and ran audio PSAs on our local radio stations,” Young said. “We also purchased digital billboard advertising in several counties.”

“Along the way, we encountered some pleasant surprises,” Hutchinson said. “For instance, our partnership with the Barren River District Health Department led us to provide box lunches for workers at a vaccine clinic for seniors. As it turned out, those seniors were the very individuals we’d been trying to reach – because most kids report getting their prescription medications from their grandparents’ medicine cabinet. During that vaccination clinic, we were able to pass out flyers to over 700 people over the age of 75 that addressed the importance of properly disposing of their unused, unwanted or expired medications.”

Additional prevention activities included partnering with independent pharmacies in the region to distribute safety disposal pouches for opioids and medibags; working with law enforcement to provide sharps containers for patrol cars; and partnering with businesses to provide NaloxBoxes.

– For more information or to request a free lock box in which to safely store your medications, contact Hutchinson at LifeSkills.

– Maureen Mahaney coordinates public information for LifeSkills Inc., a nonprofit, behavioral health care corporation that plans for and serves the people of southcentral Kentucky in three main areas: mental health, addiction and developmental disabilities. Her column runs monthly.