Louisville hospitals are facing a surge of overdoses linked to local heroin that may be laced with powerful opioid drugs.
From Tuesday to Wednesday morning, there were at least 31 overdoses in Louisville. One overdose was fatal, according to the Jefferson County Coroner’s Office.
While no one is sure what the overdose-causing heroin was laced with, authorities speculate the local supply was cut with fentanyl or carfentanil.
At a press conference, Dr. Robert Couch, an emergency room physician at downtown Louisville’s Norton Hospital, said the city is facing a public health emergency after seeing eight overdose victims in five hours on Tuesday and a ninth later that night.
“There’s heroin on the street that is literally going to kill people,” Couch told the Courier-Journal. “I’m scared of whatever is used to cut this heroin. We don’t know what it is. It could be fentanyl, carfentanil or some other toxic substance.”
Fentanyl is a highly potent painkiller that is often prescribed after major surgery. The drug was responsible for the recent overdose death of the musician Prince.
Carfentanil is the strongest commercially used opioid on the market, commonly used as an elephant tranquilizer. The drug is not safe for human use and is 10,000 times more powerful than morphine, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.
Fentanyl and carfentanil are extremely hazardous. Grains of each substance can be inhaled or absorbed through the skin, which is enough to cause an overdose.
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Louisville residents with heroin addiction are also concerned about fentanyl and carfentanil. Overdose victims were confused about why they woke up in the hospital after using their normal amount of heroin, according to Couch.
“These people were scared because they were using tiny amounts of heroin and almost died,” said Couch.
Couch and experts say that the overdoses in Louisville could be linked to the same carfentanil-laced heroin batch that has caused more than 200 overdoses in five states in the past two weeks.
Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin said his administration would address the scourge of overdoses in the state with every available resource.
As more and more overdoses were reported in Louisville, Bevin said he empathizes with Kentucky citizens struggling with drug addiction and their loved ones.
“I am heartbroken for the families, friends and communities affected,” he said in a statement.
Bevin also called for the people of Kentucky to step up to make a difference in fighting drug abuse and to help those struggling with substance use disorders.
“They need our love and support, and they need our help in finding their way to rehabilitation and recovery,” said Bevin.
The new wave of synthetic heroin mixes is causing unprecedented consequences for Louisville. Dr. Sarah Moyer, medical director for the city’s Department of Public Health and Wellness, told The Associated Press the substances found in the community “are becoming more lethal.”
As of Aug. 28, there have been 140 drug overdose deaths in Louisville this year, according to Moyer. At the same time last year, there were only 90 reported drug overdose deaths.
The deaths are increasing despite ongoing prevention efforts.
“These synthetic opioids create challenges like we have never seen before,” Van Ingram, executive director of Kentucky’s Office of Drug Control Policy, told the AP on Wednesday.
Kentucky recently secured federal funding that will be used to improve data collection and analysis for opioid abuse and overdoses. The state will receive a portion of the $11.5 million the CDC set aside to assist states fighting the ongoing prescription drug overdose epidemic.
It is also one of 12 states to receive part of the $4.27 million the CDC and SAMHSA awarded for the Advanced State Surveillance of Opioid-Involved Morbidity and Mortality program.