WKYT Investigates | Rural agencies, orgs adjust to keep up with power, potency of fentanyl
WKYT visited several rural counties to see how folks on the frontlines are dealing with an influx of the dangerous drug.
LAWRENCEBURG, Ky. (WKYT) - It is a silent threat and an often-unknown additive. Law enforcement agencies are cracking down on traffickers, and health departments are warning those they work with to be careful. But the deaths fentanyl is causing continue to climb, now touching all corners of the commonwealth.
“She looked at me time and time again and said, ‘I’m not going to die. I’m not going to die,’” Marisha Corn said of conversations she had with her sister. “And they called me, and she was dead.”
Corn says she lost her sister three years ago to a fentanyl overdose. Corn is in recovery herself, helping lead a support group called Survivor Squad. The Anderson County group has seen firsthand how the shift in the drug market toward fentanyl - a powerful and potent drug that, as an added ingredient to many drugs allows dealers to make more money - hurts those who cannot escape the grip of addiction.
“People tell me all the time, ‘I want to stop but can’t,’” said Kristen Kincaid, also with Survivor Squad. “It’s hard. It takes you by the life and it does not let go.”
Fentanyl is a powerful drug that is killing Kentuckians; state data shows that it was involved in nearly 3/4 of overdose deaths last year. Across the country, the overdose death rate is higher in urban areas than in rural areas, yet the death rate in rural areas from overdoses involving synthetic opioids like fentanyl is still significantly higher than any other type of drug.
That was not always the case.
But the continued evolution of the drug market - mainly, the increasing prevalence of fentanyl - has forced agencies and organizations across Kentucky to make changes to keep up with the potency of the drug and to save lives.
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In Bourbon and Harrison counties, the Bluegrass Narcotics Task Force says its main focus now is on traffickers of fentanyl (plus meth, cocaine and heroin). (The task force says meth is also once again on the rise across the state, findings also reflected in the state’s latest overdose report.)
“Our drug dealers are well aware that this task force exists,” said Harrison County Sheriff Shain Stephens, who helped launch the task force after noticing multiple overdose deaths over his first weeks in office back in 2014. “Hopefully they’re looking over their shoulder a little more than they possibly did in the past.”
A recent arrest detail conducted by the task force (made up of the Harrison County Sheriff’s Office, the Bourbon County Sheriff’s Office, Cynthiana Police and Paris Police) and Kentucky State Police netted charges against 22 people, many of them trafficking charges for drugs like carfentanil or fentanyl derivatives.
“Dealers frequently mix fentanyl with other drugs, such as heroin, pills, cocaine, methamphetamine and MDMA, which results in the cheaper availability of drugs,” investigators explained in a Facebook post announcing the arrests. “This practice is extremely risky for users who may not realize that this cheap addiction may be stronger than they are accustomed to, often leading to an overdose.”
The task force says it has made some adjustments - safety protocols must come into play, knowing fentanyl can be more dangerous to law enforcement, too; and the high death rates of the drug has also led to a sense of urgency, investigators say, to shut down dealers.
“I hope you like a cold jail cell,” Bluegrass Narcotics Task Force Director Mark Burden said when asked what his message is to fentanyl traffickers. “Because that’s where you’re going to end up.”
Detectives say most of the fentanyl they see is brought here from outside the country.
“A Sweet’N Low package is a little over a gram,” Burden said, holding up a small sweetener packet. “One gram of fentanyl could kill about 500 people.”
Burden said their targeted enforcement is making a difference, allowing them to see declining deaths in the task force’s jurisdiction. The county’s overdose deaths - a total of 23 in 2016 - have dropped to four through the beginning of August this year, Burden said.
Yet a look at the state’s past overdose fatality reports show how more counties - including some who, over the past few years, may not have had any fentanyl overdose deaths - are being impacted by the influx of fentanyl. A look at maps from 2017, 2018, 2019, 2020 and 2021 show the progression over a five-year span as more Kentucky counties outside of the state’s metro areas - especially those in Appalachia - began seeing more deadly fentanyl overdoses.
In 2017, 51 counties had no overdose deaths involving fentanyl. In 2021, just 13 counties could say the same.
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“Fentanyl has really become the major drug of concern in a lot of our area now,” said Scott Lockard, public health director of the Kentucky River District Health Department.
The Kentucky River District Health Department in southeastern Kentucky covers seven counties: Knott, Lee, Leslie, Letcher, Owsley, Perry and Wolfe. Workers there have certainly seen the shift toward fentanyl.
The health department operates harm reduction programs - including needle exchanges - in all seven of those counties. JoAnn Vanzant coordinates that, from “The Hub,” their one-stop shop for services in Lee County. Since opening in February, The Hub has already helped at least 55 people get into drug treatment, Vanzant said.
But her worries for them are often more immediate.
“I warn everybody when they’re in here, the ones who are actively using,” she said. “Fentanyl is real scary. Especially for our heroin users. Because nobody knows what’s in it.”
Public Health Director Scott Lockard hopes soon to be able to start distributing fentanyl test strips that can alert users to the presence of fentanyl in a substance. The health department already provides naloxone, an overdose reversal medication, as often as possible - plus training to use it.
Through their needle exchange they have learned that many intravenous drug users are now injecting smaller amounts more often to try to lessen the risk of overdose.
A lot are at risk.
The 455 harm reduction program participants in Owsley County alone, according to numbers provided by Lockard, make up 11.5% of the county’s population. It is one of the highest rates in the nation, Lockard said.
“We can’t just look at statistics and numbers,” Lockard said. “Every number represents a life, and there’s value to every life.”
The Survivor Squad echoed that.
“We know a lot of these people’s potential,” Kristen Kincaid said.
“Everybody has a passion [to help] because everybody is affected,” said Marisha Corn.
It is the reason why - as the crisis continues - their mission to help is more urgent than ever.
“We will go to the bottom pit of hell to save somebody,” Kincaid said. “I mean, we’ve been there.”
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