Will County official warns cross-contamination could cause overdoses, pose danger

After a string of overdose deaths in Will County over the past couple of weeks, one county official wants the public to stay vigilant of further danger for users.

During a Will County Board Health and Public Safety Committee meeting Wednesday, Kathleen Burke, the county’s director of substance use initiatives, gave a report on what she learned may have caused the overdoses.

She reported that there were
14 overdoses and nine deaths over the past couple of weeks in Joliet, Lockport, Crest Hill and Shorewood. Preliminary field tests conducted by responding police departments found many of these individuals were using cocaine laced with fentanyl, a powerful synthetic opioid typically used to treat severe and chronic pain.

Burke told the County Board members that initially it might have seemed like the source of the drugs might have been mixing the two substances on purpose, but after further research, she said, it might not have been deliberate. She said sometimes dealers use the same equipment to prepare all of their drugs, so there may have been some cross-contamination.

Because fentanyl is relatively cheap and becoming more common, Burke said, first responders might be seeing more of these types of overdoses.

“What’s critical is that we get the word out when this happens, that we get the community alerted to this situation,” Burke said.

Burke said her concern now is coming up with a way to better communicate such dangers to the public quickly, accurately and on a larger scale. Still, she added, she does want to be sensitive to those who might not want robocall-type alerts sent to their phones.

She said she’s been speaking with local police and fire departments and the Will County Emergency Management Agency on coming up with ways to get information out to the public when such a public health crisis occurs. Burke told members she’d want to be able to get the word out as soon as possible, because even by the time the news media reports on such incidents, several people might have already died.

One tool she said she'd like more police and fire departments to use is an ODMAP, which provides real-time overdose surveillance data across jurisdictions.The federal program High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area provides the tool for first responders and public health officials.