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A third scourge quietly stalks Cook County — officials see doubling of ‘needless, preventable’ opioid deaths
Last year the Cook County Medical Examiner’s Office handled 605 opioid overdose deaths between January 1 and July 13. This year that number is 773, though that only tells part of the story, Dr. Ponni Arunkumar, the county’s medical examiner, said.

Tuesday, July 14, 2020
Chicago Sun-Times
by Rachel Hinton

In the clutches of a deadly pandemic and a rise in street violence, Cook County is also on track to double the number of opioid overdose deaths it saw last year, officials said Tuesday, “sounding the alarm” on yet another crisis.

Last year the Cook County Medical Examiner’s Office handled 605 opioid overdose deaths between January 1 and July 13. This year that number is 773, though that only tells part of the story, Dr. Ponni Arunkumar said.

“We also have 580 pending cases,” the medical examiner said. “We know that traditionally 70[%] to 80% of those cases will wind up being ruled as opioid overdose deaths. This means that there are 400 to 465 more opioid deaths thus far this year. Realistically, just six and a half months into 2020, we already have more than 1,200 opioid-related deaths.”

“While it’s not super expensive, it’s not cheap either, and so what we’ve found is that communities — often the communities where we have the most overdoses happening among the most vulnerable populations — do not have the naloxone that they need. So, there’s a significant need.”

The county’s medical examiner has already handled more cases than it has last year — and the county’s death toll in 2020 is higher than in 2019 due to a mixture of natural causes, the pandemic, street violence and opioids, Preckwinkle said.

“All of those things together have had a devastating impact on the health of our community,” Preckwinkle said. “And I think we can anticipate that we will continue to see, if not the magnitude of deaths from COVID-19 we’ve seen this summer, but an uptick in the fall, an echo or a second wave.

 “And as you have seen, we continue to struggle with the violence, particularly in the streets of Chicago, and we’re here today to talk about the opioid overdose crisis as well. So, the pandemic continues, and the violence continues, and we continue to see the overdoses. I’m not sure anybody can predict what the exact magnitude of that challenge is going to be, but it’s already pretty serious.”

Those who have died are “overwhelmingly people of color,” Arunkumar said. Of the 773 deaths so far this year, 63% have been Black or Latino. Many are also 45 years old or older — 45- to 55-year-olds, as well as 55- to 64-year-olds are the two age groups that are most likely to “succumb to an opioid overdose death,” Arunkumar said.

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle said the county must be a voice for preventing “future, needless, preventable deaths plaguing our community.”

 

 

“Our county and our nation are facing a number of alarming challenges,” Preckwinkle said. “The victims of the opioid epidemic have been quietly dying around us.”

The Cook County Medical Examiner’s Office has seen a substantial growth in all cases — it handles the second most cases in the country, just after Los Angeles. In an average year, Cook County handles 6,300 deaths from all causes. Just six and a half months into the year, the office has handled 8,000 cases, and will soon hit 9,000, due in part to the coronavirus pandemic and the gun violence the city and county have seen in recent months.

The number of opioid cases the county has seen has also grown, telling a “grim story,” Arunkumar said.

In 2019, Arunkumar’s office handled a total of 1,267 opioid deaths, compared with 1,148 the year before.

Dr. Steven Aks, the director of toxicology at Cook County Health, said that while there’s been an increase in the number of people dying there’s been a decrease in the number of people coming to emergency rooms.

County officials offered no theories on why those suffering from overdoses are not showing up at the ER. But they made it clear that that decision could mean the difference between life and death.

“What we’d like to say is that it’s safe here — that’s the most important message,” Aks said. “This is extremely alarming with respect to opioid overdoses, because for each EMS run that a paramedic brings a patient to the hospital, if they make it to our care, they will likely live, and that’s very important for individuals to know — the patients given naloxone in the ambulance or at the scene, they will likely survive.”

The county is working to “blanket” communities with as much naloxone, a drug that can reverse an overdose, as possible, though there’s not nearly enough of the drug in communities, said Dr. Kiran Joshi, one of the leaders of the county’s Department of Public Health. The county is working on building partnerships with law enforcement and linking people to care, Joshi said.



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