Opioid overdose deaths: Cook County’s other epidemic

WGN Investigates

Opioid overdose deaths in Cook County have spiked during the COVID-19 crisis and are now on pace to more than double the totals of previous years.

Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart said his officers are responding to more of these emergency calls than ever.  And if not for Narcan, a life-saving overdose antidote, which all his police carry, more lives may have been lost.

There have been 810 opioid overdose deaths this year, according to the Cook County Medical Examiner’s office. But with hundreds of autopsies still pending, officials believe the actual number is much higher, nearly eclipsing last year’s 1,267 overdose deaths and the 1,148 in 2018.

“I consider it a public health emergency,” Cook County Police Sgt. Efrain Mata said.

Experts blame the increase on isolation, economic hardship and the challenges of obtaining treatment for mental health conditions and more.

Already this year, sheriff’s police have responded to 70 overdoses, up from 40 during the same period last year. They have given Narcan in 28 of the cases, compared to just five in 2019.

WGN Investigates obtained exclusive body-worn camera footage of police responding to two recent overdoses. In both cases, the men were unresponsive and given Narcan before paramedics arrived.

“As you know our officers are on the front lines,” Mata said.

Last year, the sheriff’s office launched an outreach program to help drug users voluntarily get treatment and other services. The pandemic has made that effort even more challenging.

Elli Petacque Montgomery is the program’s director.

“We’ve had a total of five clients who have passed away,” she said. “And four have been during the pandemic.”

Montgomery said the team members are relying on text messages, phone calls and tele-health to help clients.

“[But] it’s not the same as being there and really holding their emotions for them,” she said.

As for the overdoses, there are about 600 pending autopsies, according to the medical examiner’s office.

On average, about 70 to 80 percent of those deaths will be ruled opioid related. That would bring this year’s total to more than 1,200 overdoes. And there’s still more than five months to go.

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