OWINGSVILLE – Everyone sitting in the Bath County Cooperative Extension Service meeting room Wednesday afternoon already knew the hard-to-grasp statistic tossed out during the welcome by Deputy Bath County Judge-Executive Burnsey Stewart: This small, rural community leads the nation in overdose deaths per capita.

Preliminary statistics released in December by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicated that a primary reason for these deaths is the proliferation of Fentanyl.

“Illicit fentanyl continues to be the most prevalent drug contributing to overdose deaths, accounting for 72.5% nationwide in 2022,” according to the Kentucky Office of Drug Control Policy’s “Overdose Fatality Report.”

Cindy Kerns, Chair of the Bath County UNITE Coalition, speaks about upcoming plans as Operation UNITE President & CEO Tom Vicini looks on.

“We really are trying as hard as we can to eliminate this because even in small-town America, it’s here. It’s not going away,” Owingsville Police Chief John Sutherland told WKYT in December. “It’s very difficult to stop.”

Stewart, who is also the county’s Director of Emergency Management and retired Director of Transportation-Facilities for the county school system, noted that an emphasis must be placed on drug prevention at the earliest ages if we hope to make long-lasting changes.

Stewart, Sutherland, Owingsville Mayor Gary Hunt, Bath County Schools Assistant Superintendent Diana Cline, Bath County Sheriff Jessie Stewart, and Kentucky State Police Trooper G.T. Smith were among officials attending the community forum, sponsored by Operation UNITE.

“Young people are the change agents,” said Tom Vicini, UNITE President & CEO, recognizing the nine students from Bath County High School’s “Wild Eats” culinary program who catered the event. “Early prevention is essential. We need to provide resources that keep people from going down that road (to addiction).”

Jamie Gilliam, Director of the KY HELP Statewide Call Center, described the assistance that is available seven days a week to the entire state by calling 1-8338-KY-HELP (1-833-859-4357).

“We will provide resources for whatever barriers they are facing,” Gilliam said. “When someone calls us we may be their very last option.”

In the past year, UNITE has greatly expanded its youth prevention programs, noted Courtney Maynard, UNITE Prevention Programs Coordinator. Additional staff has been added through a grant from the Kentucky Attorney General’s Opioid Abatement Advisory Commission to take programs into schools.

This school year, more than 8,000 students have been impacted by a prevention initiative, Maynard said, adding these students had an average 36 percent increase in their knowledge about drugs and substance misuse.

“I just can’t say enough about UNITE,” proclaimed Bath County UNITE Coalition Chair Cindy Kerns. The coalition – comprised of volunteers representing all segments of the community – is a grassroots organization set up to address local needs related to education, prevention, treatment and recovery.

Operation UNITE provides an opportunity twice a year for coalitions to apply for funding, said UNITE Coalition Coordinator Cynthia Bohon. The first big activity for the coalition will be a “March Against Drugs” through downtown Owingsville on Friday, March 29.

“We’re all about doing what is needed in each community,” Vicini stated. “We’re not here just to make an appearance, we came here to make a difference.”