Coroners: Rising heroin deaths could be connected to tainted drug
Suburban officials are concerned the same potentially tainted heroin that caused a rash of overdoses in Chicago last week could have made its way north and west to users in outlying communities.
Toxicology results are not yet complete, but coroners in DuPage and Kane counties say they have noticed an increase in deaths from suspected heroin overdoses that began about Sept. 19.
Since then, seven people have died in DuPage of suspected heroin overdoses -- five of them over the weekend of Sept. 19-20 -- and Kane has reported five such deaths, coroners said.
"Last month we had definitely an uptick in the amount of deaths," Kane County Coroner Rob Russell said.
Officials in McHenry and Lake counties also are awaiting toxicology results on a handful of cases they say could be related to last week's string of 74 reported heroin overdose patients treated in 72 hours in Chicago.
Authorities said the heroin that caused overdoses in Chicago users, nearly all of whom reportedly survived, may have contained a painkiller called fentanyl that multiplied the opiate's potential to cause users to stop breathing when they ingest too much.
"Recently we have had several cases we are waiting for toxicology on, as to whether heroin is involved, and specifically if it was laced with fentanyl," McHenry County Coroner Anne Majewski said.
If the heroin sold in Chicago was tainted, that means suburban users likely got hold of it too, authorities said.
"Most of the heroin that we have out here comes from the west side of Chicago," DuPage Coroner Richard Jorgensen said.
Regional drug enforcement agencies, such as the DuPage Metropolitan Enforcement Group, track heroin sales from the city to users in the suburbs.
DUMEG Director Mark Piccoli said his agency has not seized any heroin laced with fentanyl. But he said agents interviewed a man believed to have overdosed on tainted heroin after he was found passed out along I-88 just west of I-294 last weekend.
"Our gut feeling is that what he had probably is heroin that has fentanyl in it," Piccoli said.
The man had packets of a substance believed to be heroin that looked similar to those connected to the string of overdoses in Chicago, Piccoli said. The location where the man told agents he bought the drug also matches the isolated West and South side locations at the root of the problem in the city, he said.
"It appears that this tainted heroin is being sold in pretty much confined locations," Piccoli said. "It's not widespread. So the Chicago Police Department is targeting those areas."
When drugs are present in a dead person's system, toxicology results take longer to complete, Jorgensen and Russell said. That could explain why coroners are still waiting for reports to be finished on deaths that occurred nearly a month ago.
The recent increases in heroin overdose deaths contribute to totals that continue to show use of the drug is on the rise in the suburbs.
McHenry County has reported 13 heroin-related deaths this year, compared with 12 during all of last year.
In DuPage County, there have been 22 confirmed heroin overdoses in 2015 and already 43 saves made using Narcan, a heroin overdose-reversal drug. That's compared with 33 heroin overdose deaths in all of 2014 and 33 Narcan saves that year.
In Kane County, there have been 10 confirmed heroin overdose deaths this year, compared with 22 in all of 2014.
In Lake County, 16 heroin overdose deaths have been reported in 2015 after there were 38 reported in 2014. Police officers using Evzio, another form of a heroin overdose reversal drug, have saved 33 lives since December.