The number of opioid-related deaths being investigated by the Cook County Medical Examiner’s office has doubled in the first six months of this year compared to the same time period last year.
The medical examiner’s office said Tuesday it likely has confirmed around 770 opioid deaths so far and has another 580 pending cases, most of which will likely be overdose-related. In 2019, the first half of the year marked 605 opioid-related deaths. And for all of 2019, there were 1,267 opioid-related deaths, Chief Medical Examiner Ponni Arunkumar said during a morning news conference.
Black and Latino residents make up nearly two-thirds of the overdose deaths confirmed so far this year — the same groups of people dying most of COVID-19.
“Once again, whatever crisis faces our communities, people of color bear the brunt of it,” Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle said Tuesday. “We’re here today to sound the alarm. … The victims of the opioid epidemic have been quietly dying around us.”
Arunkumar painted the latest picture of the opioid crisis in Cook County. People ages 45 to 55 are the most likely to die of overdoses. They’re typically men. The majority of people who died were on the West Side. And fentanyl bought on the street is the main culprit.
Arunkumar said she’s talked to coroners in neighboring counties, and they, too, have seen a rise in opioid-related deaths compared to before the pandemic.
The medical examiner’s office is one of the busiest in the country, investigating around 6,300 deaths a year. But the office only investigates around 16% of the 40,000 people who typically die in Cook County every year, primarily people who die unexpectedly, violently, or now, who are being investigated for COVID-19. People who die at home, for example, may not necessarily be autopsied by the medical examiner.
Dr. Steven Aks, a toxicologist and emergency room physician at the county’s public health system, attributed the spike in overdose deaths to substance use disorders exacerbated by the pandemic.
“I think one of the perspectives I have is the why of opioid use to begin with,” Aks said. “I think it ties to … hopelessness, lack of support structures and stability. I think the pandemic exposes all sorts of structural inequalities in our society, and people who have a propensity for substance use disorder are very much more at risk for relapsing or using more.”
Consider that when COVID-19 cases started to climb in the Chicago area in March, hospitals told people to stay away. They needed every bed possible to treat people infected with the new coronavirus. Now doctors, fearful that people have been putting off medical care and even dying at home, are encouraging patients to return.
The county’s public health system, a medical safety for low-income and uninsured people in the region, has not seen an uptick in opioid-related emergency room visits, despite the rise in overdoses.
Access to substance use treatment was tough before the pandemic, especially for low-income people on government-funded Medicaid health insurance, county officials pointed out.
Then when COVID-19 struck, some treatment centers for people with opioid addictions had to limit access to curb the spread of COVID-19. In-person therapy went online. Only one person instead of two to a bedroom at residential centers.
“Staying at home and keeping socially distant helps us stay safe from the coronavirus, but those precautions along with growing unemployment have a profoundly negative impact on people with substance-use disorders,” Dr. Dan Lustig, CEO of the local large treatment facility, Haymarket Center, said in a statement. “The opioid crisis was compounded by the pandemic, and the spike in overdoses was anticipated by everyone in the treatment community.”
Cook County officials said they plan to get more of the opioid overdose-reversing drug naloxone to communities with help from $5 million in grants.
When asked if the county is doing enough, Preckwinkle responded: “We can always do more. We’re doing the best we can.”
Kristen Schorsch covers public health on WBEZ’s government and politics team. Follow her @kschorsch.