Opioid overdose deaths on the rise in Will County, official says

County data show about a 20% increase in overdose deaths compared to last year through September

A memorial to several people who recently died because of an opioid overdose is seen Friday at the HERO and HELPS Summit in Romeoville.

A Will County official reported that deaths due to opioid overdoses are on the rise so far this year.

Data from the Will County Coroner’s Office show the number of opioid overdose deaths through September are up about 20% compared to the same period in 2020.

Kathleen Burke, Will County’s director of substance use initiatives, presented the numbers to the Will County Board Public Health & Safety Committee on Wednesday.

“The trend is not good folks,” she said.

Burke attributed the increase to the disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic which has made it more difficult for patients to access care. She added that being in isolation has “exasperated” their substance-use disorder.

She said the increase in deaths is also caused by the prevalence of fentanyl, a synthetic opioid significantly more potent than medications like morphine.

“Fentanyl is poisonous and it’s in all of the drugs that we’re seeing (with) overdoses,” Burke said adding the prevalence of the drug was “scary.”

One of the main logistical issues Burke highlighted was the lack of short-term housing available for those who are homeless and need treatment for their addiction.

She is also concerned about those already in a treatment facility who test positive for COVID-19 because they would need to be taken somewhere else to be quarantined. Burke said local treatment agencies don’t have room to house and isolate patients positive for COVID-19 because of space limitations.

Historically, Burke said her team could place individuals awaiting treatment for their substance use disorder in a local shelter, but those facilities are full due in part to social distancing requirements.

“We are struggling with this because we don’t want people to die while they’re waiting for care, but right now COVID has placed us in a situation that is problematic,” Burke said.

Board member Rachel Ventura, D-Joliet, suggested the county look into possible locations for extra space to accommodate such patients.

Sue Olenek, the executive director of the Will County Health Department, said the county simply doesn’t have enough residential facilities for those struggling with an addiction or other serious conditions.

“This is a problem, but there’s no one entity ... that has the expertise or the resources [to address it],” Olenek said.

Burke also said her office has distributed over 3,700 boxes of naloxone, the lifesaving drug used to reverse opioid overdoses, throughout the county between January and October of this year. She and her team of recovery coaches have been working to train first responders, workers and residents on how to administer the drug to help someone experiencing an overdose in hopes of preventing more deaths.

Burke also pointed out that during the first few years in her role, her team had success in connecting those in need with resources and those efforts helped reduce the number of overdose deaths in Will County. But the pandemic has made a difficult situation worse and Burke said the public should be aware of the problem.

“We need to reemphasize that this is a crisis and this is an epidemic,” she said. “This is just as serious as COVID and I’d like to see that kind of attention given to this problem.”