Officials hope decrease in opioid deaths continues in McHenry, suburban Cook

It's a result McHenry County officials hope will continue: fewer opioid overdose deaths in 2018 than 2017, the first such decrease in four years.

The county recorded 44 opioid-related overdose deaths in 2018, a 29 percent decrease from a record 62 in 2017, Coroner Anne Majewski said.

"We're very excited here for that," she said, "and we hope it's a trend in McHenry County."

McHenry officials say the decrease could be because of efforts coordinated by the health department, mental health board and substance abuse coalition, or because the county lacks a true drug-trafficking hub.

The opioid death toll also dropped in suburban Cook County from 317 in 2017 to 258 last year, according to a Daily Herald analysis of medical examiner's open data.

Municipal leaders say programs in Rolling Meadows, Elk Grove Village and Arlington Heights to help users access treatment are beginning to show positive effects.

In both locales, work continues to counter the evolution of the opioid issue, which coroners say includes an increase in deaths involving combinations of drugs, especially fentanyl, which is some 50 times stronger than heroin.

Majewski said McHenry County's strength against opioids comes from its partnerships, which have bolstered education about the dangers of the drugs and increased access to overdose antidotes.

"I'd like to think, too, that my getting out into the community and talking about it and helping keep good statistics to keep people on top of it heightens awareness," she said.

McHenry's efforts have brought in the services of the nonprofit Live4Lali, which operates a recovery support and overdose prevention program out of The Other Side sober bar in Crystal Lake.

"They have gone the distance of embracing science and bringing in our team to do harm reduction," said Chelsea Laliberte Barnes, founder and executive director of Live4Lali.

McHenry also prioritizes safety by making an overdose reversal drug called naloxone or Narcan easily available.

"If somebody in McHenry County wants Narcan, for free, we can get it for them through one of our partners," said Laura Crain, who runs the McHenry County Substance Abuse Coalition.

The coalition has 230 members committed to decreasing overdoses.

"All those perspectives allow us to look at how to address things in a way that's real to the people who need it," Crain said.

Meanwhile, Rolling Meadows, Elk Grove Village and Arlington Heights all offer programs through their police to provide connections to treatment for drug users who come to them seeking help.

Elk Grove's program also involves follow-ups with people who seek assistance, support groups, an education campaign and placement of naloxone kits in 21 public and private buildings.

Sixteen people have joined the program in search of treatment since it launched late last June, and Mayor Craig Johnson said 12 of them - or 75 percent - remain active.

"That's a phenomenal percentage to be doing that well," Johnson said.

The program is helping more than just those 16, he said, especially in the case of one participant, whom police suspected of dealing drugs in Elk Grove before he joined.

"We have seen a reduction in activity near where he used to reside, which is a very good sign to our police," Johnson said. "You're not only helping someone get over an addiction, but you're also making other people safe."

Following Rolling Meadows' lead in establishing a treatment connection program in 2015 and Elk Grove's in devoting nearly $500,000 to run its campaign against opioid abuse for as long as possible, Arlington Heights launched its Community Addiction and Recovery Effort late last July. Johnson said he knows these programs aren't stopping all addictions, but he says 2018 death totals show they're making a dent.

"The desire for it has not gone away; it's still out there," he said about the allure of opioids. "Our hope is we can eliminate that."

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