Cook County is on the verge of setting a new record for opioid-related deaths as researchers warn of hundreds of uncounted cases – NBC Chicago

The number of opioid-related deaths in Cook County last year is expected to set a new record, possibly reaching more than 2,000 once all autopsy tests are complete, the county medical examiner’s office said Tuesday. by Cook.

The bureau has already confirmed 1,599 opioid overdose deaths for 2022, and it expects 400 to 500 of its pending cases to also be listed as opioid toxicity deaths. In 2021, the county reported a record 1,936 opioid overdoses.

As troubling as those numbers are, researchers at the University of Illinois at Chicago say the county may be seriously underestimating opioid-related deaths.

A UIC School of Public Health study found at least 633 hospital deaths from 2016 to 2019 that met criteria for an opioid overdose but were not listed as such by the US Centers for Disease Control. United.

Researchers found that less than 20% of hospitalized patients who exhibited symptoms of opioid overdose were autopsied by the medical examiner’s office.

“We’re missing somewhere between 6 and 8% from the bottom end up to 15% of all opioid-related deaths in Cook County because people are dying in hospital settings and they don’t fit the profile of your typical opioid use disorder. individual,” said Lee Friedman, an associate professor at UIC who led the study.

“Therefore, they are not sent to the [medical examiner], who will do the precise job of cataloging the death appropriately and completing the death certificate. And that is reported to the CDC,” he explained.

Friedman said opioid-related deaths in hospitals typically involve pharmaceuticals and people who are elderly or have chronic health conditions.

Yet he acknowledged that fentanyl, 50 times stronger than heroin, is now at the center of the protracted opioid crisis.

In Cook County, the number of deaths involving fentanyl has risen steadily, from 96 in 2015 to 1,690 in 2021. The drug now contributes to the vast majority of county opioid-related deaths here.

Fentanyl contributed to the death of the county’s youngest opioid overdose death last year, 12-year-old Joel Watts.

Watts died Aug. 19 at his home in the Roseland neighborhood. Autopsy results determined that Watts had both ethanol and fentanyl in his system and concluded that his death was an accident.

The Illinois Department of Children and Family Services was called upon to investigate Watts’ family nine times between 2016 and 2022 for reports of abuse and neglect, including sexual assault charges. .

According to a timeline provided by DCFS, Watts’ mother struggled with substance abuse and was referred for services multiple times. After the boy’s death, several siblings were taken into custody.

One of his sisters started a GoFundMe page after the boy’s death, describing him as someone “full of life” who loved to cook, cook and dance.

In 2020 and 2021, as overdoses began to rise amid pandemic shutdowns, nearly 85% of reported deaths were fentanyl-related, according to the medical examiner’s office. That number, based on preliminary data, rose to almost 91% last year.

Friedman said the drug war-style approach of focusing on supply and locking people up “hasn’t proven to be effective.” He argued that there was a need for more treatment options and wider adoption of existing solutions, such as more pharmacists handing out clean needles and more healthcare professionals handing out drugs that reverse needles. effects of an overdose.

Those seeking to address the opioid problem remain “legally barred from implementing many proven and effective harm reduction strategies,” Friedman said.

Unlike in Canada and Europe, medical professionals here cannot help users quit smoking by administering regulated, potent forms of illicit drugs in a controlled setting. Illinois also does not allow so-called safe injection sites where people can freely use illicit drugs and seek help.

State Rep. La Shawn Ford, a Democrat from the West Side, introduced a bill last year to allow drug shelters, but the measure has been dragging on the house rules committee for months.

Ford said he hopes the bill will move during the current lame duck session in Springfield.

Ford is among a growing number of elected officials calling for the opioid crisis to be treated as a health issue rather than a criminal justice issue.

Under the proposal, the Illinois Department of Social Services would create a “harm reduction services license” that would be issued for injection sites.

Applicants would be required to show they have a “hygienic space”, adequate staff and safe injection supplies. Sites should provide first aid and monitor for possible overdoses.

NBC Chicago

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