DuPage opioid deaths decrease by 2, but coroner still calls numbers 'not good'
Two fewer people died from opioid overdoses in DuPage County in 2019 than in 2018.
But the slight progress -- from 98 opioid-related deaths two years ago to 96 last year -- is not enough to satisfy public health officials who have been working against the problem since the early 2010s.
"I'm very disappointed that we have not had a better change," DuPage Coroner Richard Jorgensen said. "It's virtually the same number."
The 96 opioid-related deaths are the second-most the county has seen since 2012, when Jorgensen began studying and fighting the issue. But the total represents no material change since 2016, when 95 people died in DuPage County from heroin and other opioids. The death total in 2017 also was 95.
"We've been on a plateau," Jorgensen said. "That's not good."
Public health officials in DuPage and across the region and the country are finding it difficult to combat the trend of opioid deaths because of the challenges people face in finding treatment, paying for it and completing it to begin a life in recovery.
"Opioid addiction is just one of the hardest addictions to overcome, and it's extremely dangerous," Jorgensen said.
Another challenge since 2015 has been the presence of black-market fentanyl. The powerful opioid is 30 to 50 times more potent than heroin, and it can come in roughly 60 varieties -- some of them even stronger yet, Jorgensen said.
Deaths from fentanyl now have overtaken deaths from heroin in DuPage, with 33 people dying from fentanyl alone in 2019, compared with 13 dying from heroin alone and 42 succumbing to a combination of the two.
Since 2014, the DuPage Narcan Program has been equipping police officers with doses of an antidote that knocks opioids off the receptors they stimulate in the brain and allows users to begin breathing again.
The program in 2019 recorded its highest total of successful revivals at 207.
"If we wouldn't have saved all those lives, this would be not in very good shape at all," Jorgensen said.
Fourteen people with confirmed opioid use who were given Narcan through the program did not survive. But the effort made 31 more saves than it did in 2018 and now has revived overdosing patients 605 times in six years.
Because of privacy rules, the county does not track data on whether any of the overdose reversals have revived the same person more than once.
Karen Ayala, executive director of the DuPage County Health Department, said the county's Heroin/Opioid Prevention and Education Taskforce is working to improve access to treatment, education and recovery resources that can help people affected by opioids.
The county also plans to take a deeper look at each person who has died from an opioid overdose, beginning with the 98 who lost their lives in 2018. Using funding from a $1.1 million federal grant, Jorgensen said, the county plans to establish an opioid fatality review team to delve into the reasons people started using opioids, couldn't stop and eventually died.
"We're going to try to look at it in a completely new way to answer the question of 'Why?'" Jorgensen said. "What haven't we found that we can find to turn this problem around? We're really trying to be open-minded."
DuPage opioid deathsOpioid overdose deaths in DuPage County since 2014:
2017: 95 2018: 98