Heroin and opioid overdose deaths are on pace to top last year's totals in four of six area counties, even while first responders are setting records for saving lives using an antidote.
There have been eight more overdose deaths in McHenry County through Nov. 6 than the 46 recorded all last year, and Lake, Kane and Will counties also are on track to register increases in heroin- and opioid-related fatalities.
Cook County numbers are trending roughly the same as a year ago, while DuPage numbers show a slight decrease.
The rising overdose totals and record number of saves using a medication called naloxone mean the heroin and opioid problem remains a major public health issue that won't be solved soon, experts say.
"It (heroin) is a highly addictive drug, and it's not something people can just stop on their own," said Rob Russell, the coroner in Kane County, which has seen 42 heroin and opioid overdose deaths this year, fast approaching last year's total of 46. "It's frustrating to me and the other coroners because it's such a waste of life."
Coroners, police, doctors and substance abuse experts say three main factors continue to drive death totals higher, even as first responders gain experience -- and success -- reviving drug users using naloxone. Those factors are the strength and presence of fentanyl in the black-market drug supply, a shortage of addiction treatment facilities, and an overabundance of prescription opioids.
Last year, DuPage, Lake, Kane, McHenry and Will counties recorded 291 deaths from heroin and other opioids, both illegal and prescribed. This year, through Nov. 6, coroners in those counties have confirmed 256 such deaths.
If overdoses continue at the same rate through November and December, 304 people will die this year from overdoses in those counties.
In Cook County, meanwhile, officials have confirmed 530 heroin-related deaths and 400 fentanyl-related deaths in 2017, compared with 626 from heroin and 562 from fentanyl in all of 2016. An unknown number of those deaths overlap because both heroin and fentanyl were in the deceased's system.
"It certainly seems like the numbers are still significant this year," Deputy Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Eimad Zakariya said. "It seems to show a continuation of the problem."
Even more deaths would occur if not for coordinated programs in all six counties that equip police officers with doses of naloxone, also known as Narcan or Evzio. The antidote knocks opioids off the receptors in the brain and allows drug users who have stopped breathing to regain consciousness.
"Naloxone is really just a bridge to survive another day so that people can put their lives back together and get into recovery," said Dr. Steve Aks, an emergency physician for the Cook County Health & Hospitals System and director of the Toxikon Consortium, which aims to improve treatment for poisoned patients.
Kathleen Burke, Will County director for substance use initiatives, called the rise in naloxone saves in her county "dramatic."
Such saves, in fact, have doubled from 15 in 2016 to 30 so far this year. Still, 64 people have died from overdoses, on pace to overtake last year's total of 74.
The emergence last year of fentanyl, which is 30 to 50 times stronger than heroin, and synthetic versions of the drug called fentanyl analogues, which can be even stronger, is creating an increased need for rescues, Burke said.
Naloxone is saving people -- 226 this year across DuPage, Kane, Lake and Will counties, compared with last year's total of 212 -- but it's only a temporary solution, experts say. Treatment and supported recovery need to come next.
"We need more treatment facilities to help people get over the hump and get their lives back," he said. "We can either start looking into more treatment and start funding that in a pre-emptive strike, or we can continue funding the autopsies -- because that's basically what's happening."
Will County officials also are working to increase behavioral health options.
"That's what will make all the difference," Burke said.
In Naperville, the focus is on prescriptions, which police Chief Robert Marshall says are increasingly causing people to overdose.
Last year, he said the department responded to 37 prescription overdoses, five of which resulted in deaths. This year, Naperville police have been called to prescription overdoses 56 times, although Marshall said no one has died.
A Naperville nonprofit organization called KidsMatter is relaunching a campaign against prescription abuse called "Don't be an Accidental Drug Dealer" that started in 2015. The campaign promotes drug drop boxes offered at the police headquarters and all 10 fire stations and reminds parents to lock or dispose of their medications.
Roughly 2,300 pounds of unwanted drugs have been collected so far this year. Similar take-back options are available throughout the region, including a Lake County program through the sheriff's office, a Cook County program through the Solid Waste Agency of Northwest Cook County, and a Kane County program through Kane County Recycles.