It's time to erase the common stereotype of a heroin abuser as a person lurking stoned in a dark alley with a dirty needle sticking out of an arm, Lake County health care and law enforcement leaders say.
Instead, according to members of the Lake County Opioid Initiative, the new heroin abuser is a person who looks, acts, walks and talks just like everyone else. Abusers are people in middle-class and affluent neighborhoods, teens going to high school or college, and people you may work with daily at your job.
"It's not the guy in the alley anymore. It's our kids," Lake County Undersheriff Raymond Rose said Thursday at a monthly Lake County Opioid Initiative meeting. "The days of that stereotype are over. Our kids are at risk, and that has to change."
The Lake County Opioid Initiative was created two years ago as a task force to not only educate the public but curb the rise in opioid-related deaths throughout Lake County.
Part of that effort now includes equipping all Lake County police officers with a naloxone nasal spray kit by Sept. 1, an initiative made possible thanks to a $75,000 donation.
For over half a century, naloxone has been used in medical settings to reverse thousands of drug overdoses, said Cynthia Vargas, spokeswoman for the Lake County state's attorney's office.
The drug is a cost-effective, non-abusable medication that, when injected intramuscularly or nasally, will bring an individual out of a potential overdose within two to five minutes.
It's only more recently, however, that authorities have placed the drug in the hands of police officers and other first responders who may encounter someone experiencing an overdose.
The DuPage County Health Department is working to train roughly 1,200 police officers to use the drug, also known as Narcan, in a nasal spray form.
Kane County officials hope to launch a similar effort.
In Lake County, the initial training of about 70 officers from 20 law enforcement agencies -- including the Lake County sheriff's office and the Lake County Metropolitan Enforcement Group -- took place Monday and Tuesday in Mundelein and Waukegan.
Officers learned what to look for when encountering a person suffering from an overdose and how to best administer the medication.
"I thought it was an extremely well-presented training that will definitely save lives," said Round Lake Park Police Chief George Filenko.
"I've seen how this stuff works before," he said. "It's like an instant burst to the victim and they immediately wake up.
"So, officers having the training in what to look for, having this drug in their possession, then knowing how to administer it will definitely help stop some of these overdoses from turning fatal."
Sarah Toomey, coordinator of public affairs and marketing for Advocate Condell Medical Center in Libertyville, said naloxone is a prescription medicine that blocks the effects of opioids and reverses an overdose. The effects of the drug are harmless to a person who isn't on opioids, she said.
"It's very critical to treat an overdose as quickly as possible," said Dr. Adam Rubinstein, president of the medical staff at Condell.
"Having naloxone available to police will save valuable time -- and lives."
According to the Lake County coroner's office, the county experienced 59 substance abuse deaths in 2013, with 43 cases considered opioid overdoses.
That number is down from 81 in 2012, of which 46 were opioid-related. There were 84 substance abuse deaths in 2011, of which 54 were opioid-related.
The task force was founded in 2012 by Filenko, Lake County State's Attorney Michael Nerheim, Nicasa Behavioral Health Chief Executive Bruce Johnson, and Chelsea Laliberte, the executive director of Live4Lali, a Lake County-based drug awareness, education and overdose prevention organization.
The group has grown in recent months to about 60 members, including business owners, hospital executives, politicians, law enforcement leaders and members of the Lake County Health Department.
"It's not just law enforcement or treatment. It's people from all walks of life coming together," he said.
"From law enforcement to recovery to education to health care to government, everyone is working together."
From here, the group hopes to change the way overdoses and heroin users are viewed by the public. It's also working to change and update legislation and make it easier for people to dispose of prescriptions.
"It's really a neat thing to see this group come together and watch the progress we have made," Nerheim said.
"We have really come a long way in a short period of time."