Cook County residents continue to die of opioid overdoses at an unprecedented rate, with fatalities reaching an all-time high last year, according to data released Tuesday.
The Cook County medical examiner’s office announced that 2,000 people died of opioid overdoses in 2022, breaking the previous record of 1,935 deaths set just the year before.
Those overdose deaths spiked significantly around the beginning of COVID-related lockdowns, jumping 42% from 2019 to 2020.
And although overdose deaths have plateaued since then, “we are still seeing a steady increase year over year,” said Natalia Derevyanny, spokeswoman for the medical examiner’s office.
Overdose deaths in the county have risen nearly every year since 2018. Opioid deaths were only a fraction of today’s levels in 2015. That year, 676 overdose deaths were recorded.
The vast majority of opioid overdoses last year — 91% — involved fentanyl, the synthetic drug that’s often laced in heroin but 50 times more potent, the medical examiner’s office said.
Deaths in the county involving fentanyl have been rising yearly for nearly a decade — from 103 fentanyl-related deaths in 2015 to 1,825 last year.
The latest numbers from the medical examiner’s office reflect the ongoing national opioid overdose epidemic that now claims the lives of more than 100,000 people in the U.S. every year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The epidemic has been fueled by an increase of fentanyl in the drug supply, and the isolation related to COVID-related lockdowns. Drug overdoses are now the leading cause of injury-related deaths, the CDC says.
In Cook County, overdoses have outnumbered murders since at least 2015. That year had 611 murders and 676 fatal overdoses, according to medical examiner office data.
Last year, about 78% of the overdose deaths in Cook County were men. About 56% of those who died were African American. Latinos accounted for just under 15%, and whites about 29%, the office said. Just over 70% of the county’s opioid deaths were in Chicago.
The age group impacted most were 50-to 59-year-olds, accounting for 27% of deaths, according to the medical examiner’s office.
The youngest overdose victim last year was 12-year-old Joel Watts, found dead of an accidental overdose at his Roseland home on Aug. 19. The state’s child welfare agency had been visiting the family and reported the child was subject to “concerns for abuse and neglect,” CBS 2-Chicago reported.
The oldest overdose victim was an 84-year-old Chicago woman from the Sauganash neighborhood. She died June 14, 2022, at Swedish Hospital.
Cook County also saw a 46% increase in overdose deaths related to the animal tranquilizer xylazine, which caused at least 161 deaths in the county last year, WBEZ reported in April. Xylazine was listed as a primary cause of death of more than 8% of all opioid-related deaths in Cook County last year.
The medical examiner’s office sometimes takes weeks or months to confirm overdose deaths because of delays in toxicology testing. So far in 2023, the medical examiner’s office has recorded 775 overdose deaths.