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DuPage overdose deaths down 24% in 2023, but ‘we still have a long way to go,’ coroner says

Naperville Sun - 4/30/2024

For the first time in the past decade, overdose deaths in DuPage County took a significant downturn in 2023, decreasing 24% from the year before, according to a new coroner’s office report.

The drop, Coroner Richard Jorgensen says, is as much an affirmation that countermeasures the county has developed are working as it is a reminder that active oversight must continue to keep the issue at bay.

There were 114 overdose deaths in DuPage County last year. That’s 36 fewer than 2022, which saw 150 drug-related fatalities, data shows.

“We’re certainly not doing a victory lap or anything,” Jorgensen said. “We’re very happy that it’s going down, but we still have a long way to go.”

The county’s 2023 overdose report notes that while fewer deaths “is positive, the epidemic of opioid and other legal and illegal drugs continue to ravage our county.”

Among the worst is fentanyl, which was present in the toxicology results for 80 of the 114 overdose deaths. A potent synthetic opioid, fentanyl is a pharmaceutical that can be medically prescribed to treat severe pain but also can be made illegally and is often added to other drugs because of its extreme potency, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It can be deadly even in small doses, the CDC says.

The prevalence of fentanyl continues to be a concern, Jorgensen says, especially as slightly altered versions of the synthetic opioid begin to crop up. As approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, fentanyl is 50 times more potent than heroin and 100 times more potent than morphine. There are modified types, or isomers, that can be even stronger.

Jorgensen pointed to carfentanyl, which is 10,000 times stronger than morphine. The isomer — which first appeared in DuPage County four or five years ago but seemed to drop off — re-emerged locally last year, he said.

“It’s not back in every case, but when it shows up, it perks my (ears) because it’s such a dangerous drug,” he said.

Of the 80 overdoses in which fentanyl was present last year, most contained multiple isomers, county data shows. Across overdose deaths, polypharmacy — the presence of multiple different types and classes of drugs — was common.

The county reported it is now normal to find as many as 15 drugs present in toxicology results, making it difficult to isolate which drug or combination of drugs was responsible for a death.

Behind fentanyl, the drugs most frequently identified among overdose deaths last year were cocaine, benzodiazepines, cannabinoids and opioid-based prescription medications. Meanwhile, heroin played a relatively small factor in deaths.

One difference from years’ past, according to the report, is the age of those who are dying. In 2013, most overdose deaths were of people in their 20s, the second most in their 30s, the county reported. But last year, the victims were mostly in their 30s and 40s.

Jorgensen said he’s hoping “this represents less young people entering the pool of using these drugs.”

He’s likewise cautiously optimistic that last year’s downturn is something “we’ll see (continue) over many years.”

The county has several ongoing programs and initiatives dedicated to fighting overdoses.

Among those is the availability of naloxone, known commercially as Narcan, that can reverse an overdose when it’s happening. Not only can the drug be obtained by people through the mail or at designated locations throughout the area, first responders and community members have been trained to recognize the signs of an overdose and use it in response.

Between 2014 and 2023, Narcan was put into use 1,949 times, 1,523 of which resulted in lives being successfully saved, data shows.

“We’ve tried so hard to try to turn this around,” Jorgensen said.

“After one year, there’s not a trend to make,” he said, “but I’m certainly hoping that this is representative of turning the battleship around. … Again, we’re certainly not doing a victory lap. As long as there are people dying of overdoses, we’re going to be vigilant.”

DuPage County is not alone in its efforts.

In early April, a state bill seeking to expand access to fentanyl test strips advanced out of the Senate. The strips show the presence of fentanyl in a substance, which can serve as a warning to a user.

And this week, the city of Naperville announced a pair of new grant opportunities available to organizations providing mental health and substance abuse programs and services. Guidelines and applications for the grants can be accessed at www.naperville.il.us/mental-health-substance-use-grants.

Applications are due May 31. Funding, the city said, will be awarded in June and must be spent by year’s end.

tkenny@chicagotribune.com

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