Illinois opioid deaths increased 32% in 2020

Medical experts and addiction advocates were not surprised when opioid overdose deaths in Illinois increased by more than 32% in 2020.

They were surprised it wasn't higher.

“I think everyone thought it was going to be worse,” said Dr. Tom Scaletta, medical director of emergency services at Naperville's Edward Hospital. “The pandemic broke down so many options for treatment and care, and combined with a lack of socialization, it was all just an unbelievable stressor for people who suffer from opiate and other substance use disorders.”

Nearly 3,000 Illinois residents died from an opioid-related overdose in 2020, more than 700 more than died in that manner in 2019, preliminary data from the Illinois Department of Public Health shows.

“When COVID hit and we saw all the people dying and being impacted, that anxiety of the unknown is a trigger,” said Laura Fry, executive director of Arlington Heights-based Live4Lali, an addiction education, support, advocacy and harm reduction organization. “When you take someone who has substance use disorder, who's newly in recovery or someone who already has shaky coping tools, and you throw in a deadly disease that nobody knows anything about, this is what happens.”

IDPH records show opioid overdose deaths ballooned in May 2020, less than two months after statewide restrictions were implemented to slow the spread of the virus. That month 338 fatal opioid overdoses were reported.

And while overdose deaths declined in the following months, overdoses that didn't result in death remained high through August, IDPH records show.

“I still don't think we've seen a decrease,” Scaletta said.

Among racial and ethnicity demographics, the greatest spike in opioid-related overdose deaths in 2020 was among Hispanics, rising nearly 71%, from 199 in 2019 to 340 in 2020, IDPH data shows. Men made up nearly three-quarters of all opioid-related deaths in 2020.

Those between 35 and 44 years old accounted for 677 deaths, the most of any age group in the IDPH report. However, opioid overdose deaths among those under 25 rose by 66.7% in 2020, the largest spike among the age groups in that report.

“I looked at every single overdose report and read through each one in the last year, and every one of those people who died consistently were dealing with personal or financial problems. Many who had been maintaining stable sobriety for years relapsed,” said Dr. Rich Jorgensen, DuPage County coroner. “There's no question the effects of this thing were weighing down on that population.”

These are all preliminary figures and are expected to increase as more toxicology reports are finalized, IDPH officials noted.

“I don't know what I expected, to be honest, but every single overdose death is a tragedy and a failure, on so many levels, of the entire system,” said Lyndsay Hartman, founder of Point to Point, a Kane County-based harm reduction program for those with substance use disorders that offers clean needles, Narcan and fentanyl test strips. “The lack of resources because of the pandemic was not surprising that so many returned to using. We were all just trying to cope.”

The suburbs, which include DuPage, Kane, Lake, McHenry and Will counties along with everything in Cook County outside Chicago, saw a combined 28% increase in opioid overdose deaths, from 799 in 2019 to 1,023 last year, according to the preliminary IDPH figures. That's about one-third the deaths in the state last year.

The pandemic forced rehab centers to close, and when they reopened, bed space was drastically reduced, leaving many who wanted help unable to find it.

“Do we need more treatment options? Absolutely,” Fry said. “But the facilities we had, had to reduce the number they could take in, so there was a tremendous strain on resources.”

In addition to the lack of treatment resources, there was a lack of traditional therapeutic support, whether it be counseling or peer-support groups.

But the most sinister aspect of the spike in deaths was what was being used.

“Fentanyl and fentanyl isomers have completely taken over the opioid market,” Jorgensen said. “We've seen a complete diminution of heroin cases, especially where the overdose is from heroin alone. It's almost always mixed with fentanyl.”

Fentanyl is used to cut heroin, but its addition to the mix makes it more deadly.

In addition to the growing fentanyl issue, Jorgensen said his office came across “three or four” opiates “we literally had never heard of before.”

Fry said it's not just a spike in overdose deaths she's seeing among those with substance use disorders. Suicide claimed at least six of her friends in the past year as well.

“That's what really surprised me,” she said. “Some were participants in our programs and trying to maintain recovery and maintain mental health on top of the pandemic. It's why I've been calling it the perfect storm. And it was.”

IDPH figures on suicides have yet to be released for 2020.

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