JOLIET – Will County could surpass 80 heroin-related deaths in 2016 if trends continue.
On Oct. 3, Will County Coroner Patrick K. O’Neil announced the county had tied its previous single-year record of 53 heroin-related deaths, set in both 2012 and 2015.
On Thursday, O’Neil said he confirmed Wednesday the 58th heroin-associated fatality in the county this year. The coroner’s office currently has nine cases pending in which it suspects heroin as a cause of death.
“I would just say the scenes are very suggestive of heroin overdose in those nine cases,” he told the Will County Board’s Public Health and Safety Committee. ”We could be on pace for perhaps 80 heroin-related overdoses this year in the county.”
The county keeps updated data on overdose deaths on the coroner’s website for public view. It includes the age, sex and location of those who have died as well the substances and any other causes that may have factored into the death.
“Some of the things we’ve seen in toxicology reports are unprecedented,” O’Neil said.
He said “analogs” – substances chemically similar to certain illegal or illicit narcotic drugs – are being mixed in with heroin as a booster. Fentanyl, between 50 to 100 times stronger than heroin, is being found both mixed with heroin and by itself in overdose deaths locally and across the nation.
“There’s no patent on heroin, so who really knows what they’re getting?” O’Neil said.
Medications in pill form are the second leading cause of overdose deaths in the county, after heroin, he said.
Some of the medications and their associated brand names include: alprazolam or Xanax; oxycodone or Oxycontin; hydrocodone or Vicodin; and acetaminophen or Percocet.
“There’s definitely a correlation between the pain meds and the heroin overdoses,” O’Neil said. “A lot of it starts with the prescriptions.”
Will County Executive’s Office Chief of Staff Nick Palmer noted hearing a number quoted recently that 14 billion opiate pills are produced each year in the United States.
The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration announced in October a 25 percent reduction on the number for 2017. While the reduction is a positive, it’s not enough, Palmer said.
“People get prescribed 50 pills, 80 pills – and they use three of them,” he said. “Then they’ve got the rest sitting there. It’s this mass production of these pills and the mass availability, which is contributing – beyond just the heroin – it’s the opiates.”
Later this month, the County Board will likely approve a contract with the Robert Crown Center to introduce heroin education curriculum to Lincoln-Way High School District 210 and Wilmington School District 209-U. It would be paid for by a federal Justice Assistance Grant.
The county has been bringing heroin-related education to school districts for several years with Robert Crown. But County Board members have started to express concern that the programs were “one-and-done” in the districts and not maintained after the first year.
County Executive’s Office Communications Director Anastasia Tuskey said districts that already implemented the heroin teachings have reported good results with students.
The heroin curriculum introduced is making its way into other subjects at schools, such as science, Tuskey said. She said that districts are working to find the best way to integrate it into their respective curriculum.
Palmer said the executive’s office will work to make sure heroin and opioid education stays in curricula so it’s not just a “one-and-done” program. He said there might be ways to “widen the scope” when addressing the epidemic with future grants as the issue evolves.
Next year, the county will try to use JAG grants to bring the Robert Crown programs to school districts in Homer Glen, Lockport and eastern Will County, Palmer said. Now that the county has introduced the program to its larger, consolidated districts, it will look to address smaller districts.
O’Neil said the overdoses – the victims of which are often people 25 and older – are a strain on his office, staff and budget.
“It’s probably going to cost our office $100,000 just on these heroin deaths,” he said. “There’s no crystal ball, so how do you budget for that?”
For all the heroin victims coming through the coroner’s doors, there also are many whom first responders have saved by administering naloxone – also known as Narcan – which can reverse the effects of an opiate overdose if given in time.
Paramedics and police officers in Will County now carry the live-saving medication, for which their respective departments must budget. Although it continues to save lives, it has a cost. Officials are finding that with the rise of fentanyl use, stronger Narcan doses are needed.
“We could have a heroin fatality every day [in Will County],” O’Neil said. “We could have over 300 a year in this county if it weren’t for Narcan.”