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New Investments in Harm Reduction To Combat Skyrocketing Overdose Deaths in Kentucky

Department of Public Health, Community Groups Will Expand Access to Medications, Increase Availability to Naloxone and Build Support for Harm Reduction Approach to Overdose Crisis  

Kentucky—Kentuckians have been hit hard by the overdose crisis, with 2,250 lives lost across the Commonwealth in 2021, a tragic 71 percent increase in the state’s overdose death rate since 2019. Nationally, overdose deaths have reached a historic all-time high in recent years, with nearly 108,000 fatalities last year alone. While overdose deaths have skyrocketed across the country, Kentucky’s surge was almost double the magnitude of the national increase in deaths, and accelerated most rapidly in the Black community. 

Today, public health organization Vital Strategies announced its first set of Kentucky-based projects as part of a five-year, $10 million commitment to expanding harm reduction approaches and reducing overdose deaths in the state, in collaboration with state and local government agencies, providers, and community groups. Kentucky is one of seven states that are part of the investment from the Bloomberg Philanthropies Overdose Prevention Initiative, supporting the implementation and scaling of interventions to achieve an equitable and sustainable reduction in overdose deaths in some of the hardest-hit communities in the country.  

“So many have been impacted by addiction. It has torn families apart and heartbreakingly, taken so many lives— each one a child of God—loved and missed by so many,” said Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear. “But there is hope and there is help. Taking that first step on a journey towards recovery is one of the bravest things someone can do, and my administration is determined to have supportive offerings in place. Together, we can help more Kentuckians in recovery find a place to rest, to heal and to get stronger so they can lead long, fulfilling, healthy lives surrounded by those they love.” 

Funding and technical assistance will go towards program development, coalition-building, community mobilization, and community-based groups, with a focus on harm reduction efforts and support for high-burdened communities. This first round of projects will work to:   

  • Improve access to medication treatment and harm reduction supplies, including naloxone and sterile syringes  
  • Mobilize marginalized low-income residents in Louisville to promote and amplify harm reduction approaches for reducing fatal overdoses 
  • Build a diverse coalition of organizations and community-based groups to advance a statewide campaign for moving away from criminalization-based approaches to drug use and towards a health-based approach, to save lives 
  • Strengthen and expand a Community Advisory Board in Eastern Appalachian Kentucky, led by people who use drugs to provide expertise and inform the design and implementation of services and related health interventions in the region  

“We’re excited to support leaders, community advocates and changemakers in Kentucky who share our commitment for enacting a public health approach to address overdose,” said Tracy Pugh, States Director for the Overdose Prevention Program at Vital Strategies. “We believe these projects and partnerships will add to the momentum already established by so many committed groups and individuals for the creation of a brighter future for Kentuckians impacted by the overdose crisis.” 

“Overdose deaths are a spiraling crisis and a tragic driver of the first-ever drop in American life expectancy.  We know that with political will, resources, and a public health approach, we can reverse this deadly trend,” said Dr. Kelly Henning, Public Health Lead at Bloomberg Philanthropies. “Kentucky has been particularly hard hit, and Bloomberg Philanthropies is proud to partner with the Commonwealth of Kentucky, local governments and vibrant community-led nonprofits to tackle this complex challenge and improve the lives of Kentucky’s families and communities. Together, we have the ingredients for rapid progress.”

Below are additional details on a few of the initial projects being launched in Kentucky.   

Voices of Hope: Improve Access to Medications for Opioid Use Disorder 

Vital Strategies is supporting the continuity and sustainability of the Voices of Hope (VOH)—HEALing Communities Study Retention Recovery Coaching Program in Madison County. The program works to improve patient retention in medications for opioid use disorder (MOUD) treatment, particularly methadone. Key components of the retention program are to provide barrier relief support and recovery coaching to patients in partnering opioid treatment programs. Barrier relief support will include assistance with housing, transportation, and other ancillary needs that often drive discontinuation of care. 

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Kentucky Department for Public Health: Maximize naloxone distribution 

Vital Strategies is providing staffing resources to the  KY Department of Public Health to facilitate the development and implementation of a statewide overdose education and naloxone distribution strategic plan. This partnership between Vital and KY DPH seeks to facilitate interagency collaboration, inform design of evidence-based initiatives, foster support for overdose reduction efforts among communities and decision-makers, and assist in the design and optimization of a centralized, web-based system for distributing and tracking naloxone in the community. 

VOCAL-KY: Community mobilization for harm reduction   

Voices of Community Activists & Leaders – Kentucky (VOCAL-KY) will conduct grassroots organizing among people who use drugs and low-income marginalized communities in Louisville for promoting a harm reduction approach to drug use. VOCAL-KY draws on over 20 years of experience building a movement of low-income people dedicated to ending the AIDS epidemic, the war on drugs, mass incarceration, and homelessness. Through base building, leadership development, education, and community engagement, VOCAL-KY will prioritize structural changes that address the harms of criminalizing people who use drugs while building an infrastructure of care to prevent overdose deaths.    

“People who use drugs must be front and center in the movement to end the United States’ failed War on Drugs,” said Shameka Parrish-Wright, Executive Director at VOCAL-KY. “We know Louisville and Kentucky are in a unique position to show the country that harm reduction is not only possible, but necessary. We are proud to work with our partners in turning the tide on the preventable overdose crisis.”  

Social media channels: TwitterInstagram   

Dream.Org: “Public Health is Public Safety” Statewide Campaign 

Dream.Org will conduct coalition building and develop a statewide campaign addressing the criminalization of people who use drugs. Kentucky has among the highest incarceration rates in the country, shaped in part by the felonization of drug possession. This initiative will highlight and raise awareness of the harms that punitive and carceral responses to drug use have caused, including stigma, disruption in treatment and access to services, dissolution of families, and millions of wasted taxpayer dollars in costs, disproportionately impacting Black communities and other populations of color.  

“I’ve lived in Appalachia Kentucky most of my life and worked in Louisville for nearly a decade- I have seen that there is no “rural/urban” divide for those who experience overdose. This painful epidemic touches us all, no matter where we live,” said Amanda Hall, Campaign Director at Dream.Org. “As Justice Director for Dream.Org, I am proud to combine my direct service and policy background with my experiences as a formerly incarcerated woman in recovery for over 10 years. We seek to bring all Kentuckians together to tackle some of our state’s most pressing issues around drug policy. I’m grateful for the partnership that Dream.Org has with Vital Strategies – together we will help communities through the Kentucky ‘Public Health is Public Safety’ campaign.”  

Social media channels: TwitterInstagram    

CARE2HOPE: Community Advisory Board for Harm Reduction   

Building on the Kentucky Communities and Researchers Engaging to Halt the Opioid Epidemic (CARE2HOPE) project led by the University of Kentucky this project will expand and sustain the activities and efforts of their community advisory board of people who use drugs (PWUD). The community advisory board will help to ensure that programs, services, and other health interventions meet the needs of PWUD in Appalachian Kentucky; address the ethical, equitable, and logistical issues associated with such efforts; and obtain feedback from PWUD on policies related to drug use, criminal justice, treatment, and recovery supports.  

About Vital Strategies    

Vital Strategies is a global health organization that believes every person should be protected by a strong public health system. Our overdose prevention program works to strengthen and scale evidence-based, data-driven policies and interventions to create equitable and sustainable reductions in overdose deaths. Work across seven U.S. States is supported by funding from the Bloomberg Philanthropies Overdose Prevention Initiative, launched in 2018, and by targeted investments from Ford Foundation and other partners.   

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Media Contact:
Tony Newman:; 646-335-5384
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