JOLIET – Last year, Will County saw the highest number of cases of people overdosing on heroin and fentanyl, according to the latest figures from the county coroner’s office.
The coroner’s office lists 85 people dying from either heroin, fentanyl or a combination of both drugs in 2017. In 2016, there were 78 people who overdosed on either drug. In 2015, it was 53 people.
The alarming trend has been overwhelming for county officials who have been working to reduce the number of overdoses through several initiatives, including expanding the use of Narcan, an overdose antidote. County officials have said the biggest driver of overdoses has been fentanyl, a synthetic opioid substantially more powerful than heroin.
Will County Coroner Patrick O’Neil said it costs his office more than $100,000 a year to investigate heroin and fentanyl overdose cases.
“We could literally have another office just to do the heroin [cases],” O’Neil said.
Deputy Chief Dan Jungles of the Will County Sheriff’s Office said there is only so much law enforcement can do to resolve the opioid crisis. He said that there have been times when deputies have been to the same residence four times to administer Narcan to someone who’s overdosing.
“The unfortunate thing is people have to want to change. We’re going to the same places. We’re having contact with the same people on a regular basis,” Jungles said.
Fentanyl was identified by O’Neil and Kathleen Burke, the county’s director of substance use initiatives, as the reason why the number of overdose deaths increased in 2017. Burke said fentanyl sometimes is packaged with heroin and most people who obtain heroin, have no idea if it has fentanyl, which is stronger.
O’Neil said the supply of heroin and fentanyl has to “come to a screeching halt.” He said there seems to be plenty of supply and demand for the drugs.
“Someone has to put the hammer down on supply,” O’Neil said.
The crisis has become severe enough that county officials are suing opioid pharmaceutical manufacturers to recover the costs of battling it.
Burke said expanding the use of Narcan can make the biggest difference. She said she trains people weekly on using Narcan.
“It saves their lives,” she said.
Jungles said Narcan has been effective for deputies trying to keep someone from an overdose death. In 2017,
19 doses of Narcan were given and nine individuals were saved, he said.
Jungles said deputies sometimes have found Narcan sitting right next to packaged heroin when executing search warrants on residences. He said the drug dealers and users seem to know how effective it is. He said the antidote is a “kind of double-edged sword.”
Besides Narcan, Burke said the county has programs where people struggling with addiction can go to police departments and ask for assistance in getting treatment.
Burke said one of the issues affecting the county’s response to the opioid epidemic is the lack of access to recovery care. She said there are not enough treatment facilities.
Another approach has been the use of peer recovery specialists. Amy Burrows of Plainfield said she was certified as a peer recovery specialist by the state in January. She has started her own business, Recovery One On One in Plainfield, and will try to help people struggling with drug addiction by acting as a kind of life coach for them.
Burrows said what she does for people is long-term support and mentorship. She said that when she was recovering from post-traumatic stress disorder and her own drug addiction, she was fortunate to have financial and social support.
“I’m the person that holds their hand and walks along with them through their relapse, trying to find services, trying to find housing, through drug court, whatever their personal situation is,” Burrows said.