FRANKFORT, Kentucky — An infant and an 80-year-old person were among the victims of Kentucky's drug overdose epidemic last year as the state saw its overall death toll jump 7 percent while deaths attributed to heroin remained at historic levels.
The Kentucky Office of Drug Control Policy said 1,087 people died from drug overdoses in 2014, up from 1,010 the year before. Heroin overdoses stayed about the same, with 233 deaths in 2014 compared with 230 in 2013. But that's still a 959 percent increase from just four years ago, when 22 people died from heroin overdoses statewide.
"We see this with all drug epidemics. They reach a plateau and then hopefully start to decline," Executive Director Van Ingram said. "I hope that's where we're at with heroin."
The heroin death toll could be higher. When heroin metabolizes inside someone's body, Ingram said it leaves behind morphine and 6-Monoacetylmorphine. If medical examiners find both, they attribute the death to heroin. But if they only fine morphine, they can't be certain.
Heroin accounted for about 30 percent of all overdose deaths in Kentucky last year. But the report noted morphine was found in more than 40 percent of all cases, the most of any other substance.
"With statistics and numbers, the devil is in the details," Kentucky's Chief Medical Examiner Tracey Corey said in a news release. "What we can definitely say is that we need to continue to devote significant resources and energy to help curb the tragic and untimely deaths of so many Kentuckians."
Ingram did not have specifics on the case of the infant, adding it was most likely an accidental exposure.
Louisville had the most overdose deaths with 204, an increase of 12 from 2013. Lexington had 26 more overdose deaths than last year, the biggest jump of any county in the state. But it was Floyd County in eastern Kentucky that had the most overdose deaths per 100,000 people, with 55.1.
Of the 1,087 deaths, medical examiners performed autopsies on 795. Of those, 619 were ruled accidental deaths, while 40 were determined to be suicides. Eighty-seven deaths were attributed to "complications of chronic use" while two were ruled as homicides.
Kentucky has long had a problem with prescription pain medicine. In 2011, state lawmakers passed a law making it much harder to get prescription pain medicine. That's about the same time the state started seeing an increase in heroin overdose deaths. Heroin is an opioid that is similar to prescription painkillers but is generally cheaper and more readily available.
In March, after two years of debate, state lawmakers authorized a variety of programs to help reduce the number of overdose deaths. They allowed first responders like paramedics and firefighters to carry and administer naloxone, a drug that reverses the effects of opioids in an overdose. And they passed a law so heroin users can dial 911 to report an overdose without fear of being arrested for drug possession.
But those changes did not take effect until this year, meaning their impact won't be known until next year's report.
"It's going to be a challenge for all of Kentucky," said Democratic state Rep. Denver Butler, who worked on the bill and is the co-chairman of a legislative committee overseeing its implementation. "I think eventually we will see those numbers will start to drop."