With drug deaths spiking, coroners call for action

Chicago Tribune

By: Carrie Napoleon

A 37-year-old Crown Point woman became the 21st person in Lake County to die from an overdose Friday, a needle and syringe still stuck in her arm, according to the Lake County Coroner’s office.

With 21 fatalities in the year’s first 41 days, Lake County Coroner Merrilee Frey said a heroin epidemic is claiming an unprecedented number of lives. The total confirmed overdose deaths for January and the entire month of February last year was 18, she said.

“Know that we have many people, hundreds and hundreds in our communities who have an addiction,” Frey said.

The woman’s death paints a vivid picture of the problem that is expected to get worse before it gets better, she said. Heroin and opioid overdose deaths have been on the rise in recent years. There were 114 people who died from drug overdoses in Lake County in 2016. Frey fears the area is at the cusp of a spike in deaths.

“I’m hoping with all my heart after seeing such as high a number of deaths it will make (addicts) realize their own mortality,” Frey said.

Porter County Coroner Chuck Harris said heroin is a problem in his county as well, though the numbers are not as striking as those seen in Lake County.

In 2017, there have been two suspected heroin overdose deaths in Porter County, though toxicology reports are pending, he said. At this point in 2016 there were six opioid deaths — three from heroin, one from methadone, one from tramadol and one from morphine. His office will begin testing for fentanyl this year.

Harris said in 2016 there were 48 total drug-related deaths in Porter County. Of those, 20 had heroin in their systems and 36 had some form of opioid, which in some cases in combination with the heroin, he said.

Tackling the problem will take a multi-faceted approach, Harris said.

“There’s no one single answer,” Harris said. “We need treatment centers. We need to get rid of the stigma. People don’t want to seek help because they get labeled a drug user. It’s a disease, nothing different than any other type of disease.”

Harris said studies routinely show the need for long-term treatment centers.

“Instead of keep looking at it, we need to actually do it,” Harris said.

Lake County Sheriff John Buncich said the trend is alarming and it is getting worse. He said the use of fentanyl in heroin is particularly troubling. Users do not know what they are buying and what is mixed into their drugs and the extra potency is proving deadly.

“It is just going to take the community as a whole to come together and fight this,” Buncich said.

Not a day goes by without an addict being incarcerated at the Lake County Jail, he said. Buncich said 42 people were being treated at the jail for serious addictions Monday. He said the expense of treatment, and of supplying the sheriff’s department officers with naloxone, the heroin overdose antidote, continues to grow.

“We are facing a serious, serious situation here in Lake County. It is really hitting home here,” Buncich said.

The sheriff said police are doing what they can on the enforcement end regarding the problem but the solution is not behind a badge alone.

“We have to get a message out. We need to start young. We need to start within the schools right away,” Buncich said, adding the conversation in schools used to be about marijuana. Now, he said, it needs to be about the dangers of heroin.

“It’s a wake-up call,” Buncich said.

Frey said part of the spike in deaths being seen now has been attributed to an increased use of heroin laced with the narcotic painkiller fentanyl, the most powerful painkiller for medical use. As early as March 2015, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration issued a nationwide alert warning of the dangers of fentanyl and fentanyl analogues.

According to the DEA on its website, fentanyl is 30 to 50 times more powerful than heroin and 100 times more powerful than morphine.

Many of the overdose victims have a cocktail of other drugs and alcohol in their system including heroin, cocaine, fentanyl, marijuana, benzodiazepine and alcohol, Frey said. In 2016, 93 of the 114 overdose deaths were attributed to controlled substance. A controlled substance can be any type of narcotic including prescription drugs not used as they are prescribed. Heroin was found in the blood streams of 55 of the 114 overdose victims in 2016. Fentanyl was discovered in 27 of the victims and benzodiazepine was discovered in 75 of the victims.

“It sends a startling message of how dangerous heroin is and how dangerous it is mixed with other substances. The combinations are proving to be deadly,” Frey said.

Addicts, such as the woman who died Friday, may be falling victim to the laced heroin because of its unexpected potency, Frey said. The dose that killed the woman was so strong she died while still in the process of injecting herself, Frey said. She said the situation is tragic.

“Guess who is finding those victims? It’s the ones who love them the most – their moms and dads,” Frey said.

2016 Lake County drug deaths

Statistics from the Lake County Coroner’s office show the deaths cross the socio-economic spectrum and touch every Lake County community. Gary saw the highest number of overdoses in 2016 with 26 followed by Hammond with 18.

Crown Point had the third highest number of overdose deaths with nine, followed by Highland with eight. Griffith and Munster tied for fifth with seven overdose deaths each and in East Chicago there were six. There were four overdose deaths each in the cities of Hobart and Lake Station, and three overdose deaths each in Schererville and Dyer. Whiting, Merrillville and Lake Village each had two deaths. Cedar Lake, Hebron and Lowell each had one. There were 10 individuals who overdosed outside of Lake County but died in a Lake County hospital and count toward the 114 total.

In 2016, the statistics from Lake County show 75 overdose victims were men while 39 were women. Eighty of the 2016 overdose victims were white, 26 where black, seven were Hispanic and one individual was Asian.

The deaths cross all age groups. Sixteen people ranging in age from 15 to 24 died from overdoses in 2016 while another 26 died in the 25 to 34 age group; 22 in the 45 to 54 age group and 12 in the 55 to 64 age group.

The largest number of deaths appeared in the 35- to 44-year-old range where 36 people died from overdoses. Another two deaths were recorded in the 65- to 75-year-old age group. Coroner Merrilee Frey said the oldest person to die from an overdose in 2016 was 69.