One 2021 McHenry County overdose death had a prescription cow and horse veterinary tranquilizer, xylazine, show up in a toxicology report, said Coroner Michael Rein.
Another overdose-related toxicology report is now pending that assumes the drug was in the victim’s system, said Laura Crain of the McHenry County Substance Abuse Coalition.
Her organization traces overdose deaths to provide community alerts to health care providers and get the word out, warning users of potentially deadly drug cocktails on the street.
While fentanyl still is the leading cause of overdose deaths in McHenry Country, area health agencies, including Chicago and La Salle County, have warned that xylazine is showing up in toxicology reports. The tranquilizing drug often is found in combination with heroin, fentanyl and cocaine.
The Chicago Heath Alert Network alert said that xylazine was a cause in 155 deaths across the state in 2021.
Unlike heroin and fentanyl, xylazine is not an opioid, and Naloxone does not counteract an overdose of that drug, Crain said.
“There is no bedside, real-time clinical test to see if this is an agent on board at the time of emergency/hospital stabilization and care,” according to Chicago’s community warning.
According to the Drug Enforcement Administration, xylazine was studied for human use, but that research was stopped early “due to its severe hypotension and central nervous system depressant effects,” according to a February 2021 report on the agency website.
Robert Bell, special agent in charge of the Drug Enforcement Administration Chicago Division, warned that the tranquilizer often is mixed with other drugs.
“Xylazine, an animal sedative not approved for human use, is consistently co-mingled with illicit and deadly opioids like fentanyl,” he said.
In a prepared statement to the Northwest Herald, Bell said: “Data show that just about every xylazine-related death reported in Cook County also involves fentanyl. This fact reinforces DEA’s consistent messaging that purchasing drugs illegally – on the street or online without prescription – is a dangerous gamble. DEA remains committed to strategically and aggressively working with state and local law enforcement partners to bring to justice drug traffickers who inflict harm on our communities.”
Those who work with addicts and prevention said the powerful drug may be coming from pharmacy thefts, or synthesized in a lab, Crain said.
“You can’t just grab it at Farm and Fleet,” she said.
But according to the Department of Justice and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the tranquilizer has been showing up nationally for several years. It is now working its way into suburban Illinois counties, too, officials said.
The McHenry County Coroner’s Office has been testing for xylazine regularly since early last year, Rein said. The 2021 overdose death also had heroin, fentanyl and hydrocodone in their system, he said.
It may have been involved in previous overdoses, but testing for the drug is relatively new, officials said.
“The company that we send our labs to … changed their policy to start including it in their routine panels,” Rein said.
It has been seen in Cook County overdoses since at least late 2018.
The CDC issued an April 1 Cook County report of its study of the drug. That reports said 210 xylazine-associated deaths were reported during the study period, from January 2017 to October 2021. The last month of the study also saw a peak in xylazine-related deaths with 12.2% of fentanyl-related deaths including the drug.
It is not surprising to Crain that a drug that’s been showing up in Chicago has made its way into McHenry County,
“What we see in Chicago makes its way out here. That it is where it is purchased at,” Crain said.
Drug users may be asking for xylazine specifically because of its tranquilizing effect, she added. Or, users getting fentanyl, heroin and cocaine may not know xylazine was added to the mix.
She said she is unsure if the tranquilizer will continue its current run in street drugs.
Some popular drugs come and go in waves, Crain said, citing bath salts as a recent example. Professionals such as her, who work to educate the public on the dangers of drug use, see that happen on a regular basis.
By the time laws catch up to what is sold on the street, users and dealers find a new drug, Crain said.
“We get education; we understand it; we build programs around it and then they move on to the next one,” she said.
Her agency has yet to put out a community alert for xylazine, but keep an eye on the trend.
Fentanyl continues as the most common drug in overdoses across the country. In McHenry County, fentanyl is involved in 73% of overdose deaths.
As of July 12, McHenry County has had 17 potential overdoses. That is down from 25 for the same time period in 2021, Crain said.
The McHenry County Substance Abuse Coalition credits programs in the county, including its own, to keeping the number of overdose deaths at a minimum, Crain said.
The coalition works with 110 area agencies within its coalition to reach people who are “using at the moment” and establish relationships to help those users when they are ready to stop, Crain told the McHenry County Board at a July Committee of the Whole meeting.
Coroner Rein agreed that the county’s prevention agencies have helped bring down overall overdose cases.
“I think our county does a very good job in preventing over dose deaths. If you look at our stats, they are definitely down below the national and state average,” he said.