Opioid death toll rises in suburbs, but nonprofit warns 'urgency has died'
Opioid overdose deaths reached record highs last year in DuPage, Lake and Will counties, sparking new calls for action by advocates working to combat the epidemic.
DuPage and Will each tallied nearly 100 deaths from heroin, fentanyl and other opioids -- both prescribed and illicit -- with DuPage totaling 98 and Will counting 94. Deaths increased 3 percent in DuPage and 10.5 percent in Will from 2017 totals.
In Lake County, the opioid death toll of 70 represents a 19 percent increase from the 59 who died in 2017.
Kane County totals are inconclusive, with 58 confirmed opioid-related deaths last year but 14 cases pending. The 58 deaths so far is below last year's record of 67.
Death totals decreased in McHenry County by 29 percent and in Cook County, excluding Chicago, by 18 percent, according to figures from the coroner and a Daily Herald analysis of Cook County medical examiner's office data.
All those deaths point to the need to do more to prevent overdoses, said Chelsea Laliberte Barnes, founder and executive director of Live4Lali, one of the suburbs' leading nonprofit organizations in the fight against substance use.
After public concern about heroin spiked in 2014 and 2015, efforts in prevention, education, overdose revival, treatment, recovery and family support rose as counties formed coalitions, politicians devoted new money and affected families advocated for help. But as the crisis evolved to include more and stronger drugs, Laliberte Barnes said, the public focus has not kept pace.
"The urgency has died," she said.
Laliberte Barnes founded Live4Lali shortly after the December 2008 death of her brother, Stevenson High School graduate Alex Laliberte, from a heroin overdose.
Since then, the organization has sponsored training on use of an overdose antidote called naloxone, Narcan or Evzio; opened a community resource center in Arlington Heights; offered recovery and overdose prevention in McHenry County; and advocated for a 2016 federal law that funded access to naloxone at pharmacies.
But considering the record death total in her native Lake County, Laliberte Barnes said it's time to strengthen anti-opioid efforts anew.
"We have not ended this," she said. "Since my brother died, it's gotten worse."
An increase in the prevalence of fentanyl, an opioid 50 times more powerful than heroin, "is the biggest factor" in the continued death increases some counties are seeing, Laliberte Barnes said.
The Lake County Opioid Initiative and Live4Lali began offering fentanyl test strips last March. But users without the strips often do not know whether the odorless and tasteless fentanyl is mixed with presumed heroin they bought on the black market.
"A person with a substance use disorder can't even guarantee what kind of dose they're getting with fentanyl," said Bill Gentes, executive director of the Lake County Opioid Initiative. "It makes it worse because people are struggling, and then they get some dose that kills them."
Lake County Coroner Howard Cooper said the opioid crisis continues to deepen, partially because of overprescription of the powerful painkillers by dentists and doctors.
"When I talk to families after overdoses, one of the things I try to figure out is, 'How did this start? Where did it come from?'" Cooper said. "And I still hear a lot of stories where it started from injuries. So that to me is prescribers."
As a dentist, he said he's begun to speak to others about the dangers of opioids when other medications could adequately dull a patient's pain.
In DuPage County, officials with the Heroin/Opioid Prevention and Education Taskforce are adding to their arsenal with a new specialty court to help first-time offenders receive treatment and a test program to more effectively connect people to treatment. Called First Offender Call Unified for Success, the drug court had nearly 500 pending cases by the end of February. State's Attorney Robert Berlin said those who complete it will have their criminal cases dismissed and expunged, giving them nothing on their record to complicate their pursuit of jobs or schooling.
Laliberte Barnes said she most wants officials to focus on harm reduction, which includes promoting use of fentanyl test strips, overdose reversal kits and medication-assisted treatment; opening safe consumption facilities and needle and syringe exchanges; distributing information to drug users; and working to achieve drug policy reform.
Toward two of those goals, Live4Lali is partnering with state Sen. Melinda Bush, a Grayslake Democrat, on a bill to better define the legality of needle and syringe exchange programs.
The bill, assigned to the state Senate's public health committee, would allow people or groups "that promote scientifically proven ways of mitigating health risks associated with drug use and other high-risk behaviors" to establish and operate needle and syringe access programs under the oversight of the Illinois Department of Public Health.
Live4Lali plans to address this bill and other topics during a 10th anniversary panel discussion from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. today at the Continental Restaurant & Banquet Hall, 788 S. Buffalo Grove Road in Buffalo Grove.
• Daily Herald staff writer Robert Sanchez contributed to this report.
Opioid deaths in the last five yearsOpioid overdose deaths continued to rise in three suburban counties last year. In Kane County the total is inconclusive.
Cook County (excluding Chicago)
*In Kane County, 14 cases are pending
Sources: County coroners and Daily Herald analysis of Cook County medical examiner's open data