Ill. county sees rise in opioid overdose fatalities
Lake County officials are concerned about the 21 percent rise in local drug overdoses last year
Lake County News-Sun, Ill.
LAKE COUNTY, Ill. — A 21-percent rise in local drug overdoses last year, despite innovative and focused efforts on addressing the issue, has Lake County officials wondering just what has to be done to stem that tide.
“I didn’t want to see a 21 percent increase. That’s horrible,” Lake County Coroner Howard Cooper said.
The county has initiated several progressive and life-saying programs, including being one of the first counties in Illinois and nationally to provide naloxone — a drug that reverses opioid overdoses — to first-responders such as police and paramedics, and to train and provide school nurses with the antidote as well.
That move alone resulted in 307 lives saved by first-responders since the naloxone program was started in early 2014, authorities say.
With the help of the Lake County Opioid Initiative, police in Lake County began a program in June 2016 called A Way Out, under which addicts can seek help in finding treatment at local police stations without fear of arrest.
Officials said of the 549 people who have accessed A Way Out since its inception, 509 went on to receive treatment for their addictions.
And yet the county saw its largest overdose increase in several years in 2018.
The introduction of ever-changing strains of fentanyl — which can be 100 times stronger than heroin, into heroin and other street drugs — is viewed as a large part of the problem, and one that’s hard to combat, according to Cooper.
The total number of deaths classified as overdoses in Lake County last year was 97, of which 70 involved some type of opioid or opiate. Anti-anxiety drugs, as well as a host of other street drugs, and even substances used in huffing, contributed to the non-opioid overdose deaths, Cooper said.
Many overdose deaths each year include a combination of drugs as well, but fentanyl has been the standout for more than a year.
Cooper said scientists overseas are continuously making changes to fentanyl’s chemical makeup in an effort to keep ahead of law enforcement by making the substance initially unidentifiable.
Fentanyl is not only being found in cases of heroin overdoses, but it is also being found in a other street drugs, and in some cases, the dealers on the street may not even be aware of it, Cooper added.
As a result, users are either overdosing because they do not realize they are ingesting fentanyl, or because they may be developing a tolerance that leads them to seek a stronger high without realizing how quickly fentanyl can become fatal, he said.
The 97 overdose deaths in Lake County last year were up 12 from 2017, when there were 80 confirmed overdose deaths, according to the coroner’s office. In 2016, there were 68 overdose deaths. So the upward trend is not new, but the percentage increase is larger than the previous two years.
Officials noted that Lake County is still well below national and state averages for overdose deaths.
Lake County State’s Attorney Michael Nerheim said the national average last year was 24 overdose deaths per 100,000 residents. In Illinois, the average was 25 per 100,000 people, while Lake County’s average was 10 overdose deaths for every 100,000.
But that’s not good enough, Nerheim said.
“I’m definitely disappointed to see that number go up,” said Nerheim, a founding member of the Lake County Opioid Initiative. “My goal from the beginning is to get it down to zero. If we would have had a 21-percent decrease, I would still not be satisfied.”
Cooper said this year isn’t off to a good start either. With 11 suspected overdose deaths in January and three in February, Cooper said the county is already ahead of where it was last year at this time, although he said it’s too early to call it a trend for the year.
Fentanyl and heroin are currently the two drugs most prominent in toxicology reports, but a host of others, including morphine, cocaine and Xanax, were at least contributing factors in many of the deaths, according to records.
Cooper also said prescription drugs are still part of the puzzle. He said when talking with family members of overdose victims, he is often told the problem began with an injury for which painkillers were prescribed.
Cooper said some pain patients become addicted and develop tolerance, or lose their prescriptions and turn to the street, where they may not be getting the drugs they think they are. He said he believes some turn to heroin as well as a less expensive and stronger alternative to prescription drugs.
Chelsea Laliberte, the co-founder of the Lake County Opiate Initiative, said she believes two factors could help to better address overdoses in Lake County. She said she feels there is a strong need for “harm reduction outreach,” involving workers in the street in the areas where drug users purchase and use, to promote treatment options and education on issues such as the availability of naloxone.
Secondly, she said that while the county is doing a good job of helping people access treatment, it is limited, and some addicts aren’t receiving the ongoing counseling and medication they need to maintain sobriety.
Laliberte added that she realizes funding will be the big question for such programs, but there are now more federal funding and grant options available for such uses.
“The all-important need is to take a broader look at these issues if we’re going to fix this,” she said.
©2019 the Lake County News-Sun (Lake County, Ill.)