Despite progress, Lake County’s fight against opioid epidemic sees early setbacks in 2017

il_lcnsIt was only three days into the New Year when Lake County sheriff’s deputies responded to a report of an unconscious man at a Deep Lake Road home outside Lake Villa. The 27-year-old’s heroin overdose was reversed by deputies using the opiate antidote Naloxone.

Since then, the saves have just kept on coming for the sheriff’s office.

On Jan. 8, deputies responded to a car accident in Ingleside, near Rollins and Wilson roads, and found the driver of one of the vehicles unconscious. Deputies determined the 31-year-old was overdosing on opioids, but the first dose of Naloxone had no effect. A second deputy arrived and two more doses were administered before the driver regained consciousness. Four days later, a 30-year-old Ingleside woman found by a family member could not be revived. The following day, deputies were successful in reviving a 30-year-old man from unincorporated Libertyville who needed two doses.

Last year, the sheriff’s office was responsible for saving 14 lives using Naloxone, and if the start of 2017 is any indication, the opioid epidemic might be increasing. In 2016, deputies saved two people in January and didn’t have another save until March.

“This is a major communitywide problem. Overdose from opioids has become far too common and exactly why treatment is a critical component,” said Undersheriff Ray Rose, who is part of the Lake County Opioid Initiative. “We as a community have to ensure those suffering from opioid addiction receive proper treatment to end this epidemic.

Mary Gardner of Waukegan, seen here in June 2016, is one of the former opioid addicts who received extended treatment through the Lake County Health Department’s Medication Assisted Treatment program. (By Frank Abderholden / Lake County News-Sun)

“We need to give people a second chance to get where they need to be,” he said. “But that alone is not the solution. One guy we saved — it was the fourth time we saved him. That’s why treatment is the next step. That’s how we will be able to solve the epidemic.”

Sheriff Mark Curran said deputies have saved more than 25 lives since the Naloxone program began just over two years ago.

“While I am grateful for the lives saved, we are currently in an opioid epidemic and are losing far too many lives to opioids,” Curran said.

According to the latest statistics from the Lake County coroner’s office, opioid or heroin-related deaths went up from 39 in 2014 to 42 in 2015.

Lake County Coroner Dr. Howard Cooper said that for the first three quarters of 2016, there were 31 opioid- or heroin-related deaths, which was down from the same period in 2015.

“It’s an epidemic, and not just in Lake County but the nation as a whole,” Cooper said. “The biggest problem is (heroin) is very inexpensive and very easily obtained. So it’s a huge problem.”

Contraband recently seized by the Lake County Sheriff’s Office includes heroin and prescription drugs. (Lake County Sheriff’s Office)

Debbie Guggenheim, director of the Jordan Michael Filler Foundation of Highland Park — which is named for a 23-year-old man who died of an overdose in January 2014 — said the epidemic is getting worse. She said police have made 130 saves since the program started three years ago

In October, the foundation donated almost 1,500 doses of Naloxone nasal spray to the Lake County Opioid Initiative to supply police officers with the antidote for 2017. The foundation has also pushed for legislation to loosen privacy laws when parents are trying to find out medical conditions of their 18-year-olds, who as adults are protected under the law from having doctors disclose any medical information about them.

“We are still fighting an uphill battle for sure,” she said of opioid addiction in general. “It’s a major, major problem.”

A specific problem Guggenheim sees is the rise of fentanyl overdoses, which are usually fatal because the synthetic opioid is so much more powerful than heroin.

“It’s now in pill form, and it’s frightening,” she said. “It’s lethal to the touch. If you have an open sore or get enough on your skin, it can kill. It’s terrifying, and it’s being cut with heroin more and more.”

Guggenheim added that fentanyl is so deadly it takes four to six doses of the antidote to revive victims, and most officers aren’t carrying four doses. She pointed out that the window in which a person overdosing needs the antidote is smaller with fentanyl than with heroin, where the antidote is needed within 3 to 4 minutes.

According to Cooper, there were eight fentanyl deaths in the county during the first three quarters of 2016. In 2015, there were three people with the drug in their system when they overdosed. He said fentanyl is about 100 times more powerful than morphine.

“The more publicity about (fentanyl), the better,” Guggenheim said. “Some parents have never heard of it.”

In Lake County, advocates, law enforcement, prosecutors and health services have teamed up under the umbrella of the Lake County Opioid Initiative to try and save lives and get people into treatment. They use a wide array of strategies.

At the organization’s website, opioidinitiative.org, a map is featured of 31 places in the county where someone can take old prescription drugs or unused medication for disposal. All are police stations, except for Walgreens stores in Deerfield and Waukegan. Sometimes a young person’s first encounter with an opioid drug comes from the medicine cabinet at home or a friend’s house, according to the website.

Lake County State’s Attorney Michael Nerheim has also approached the problem in a number of ways, from drug court — where more than 30 people opted for treatment to avoid going to jail in 2016, a slightly higher number than in 2015 — to the newest program called “A Way Out.”

“It’s a pre-arrest strategy,” Nerheim said. Rather than getting arrested and then offered treatment, an addict in this program can go to one of seven police stations 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and tell authorities he or she is seeking treatment for their addiction. Drugs and paraphernalia can be turned over without charges.

“We’re trying to help people who have decided on their own to get treatment,” he said. “Anyone that struggles with an addiction knows sometimes there is a window of opportunity. A person wakes up at 2 a.m. and decides they are tired, they are done, they need help. Now they have somewhere to go.

“We’ve had over 60 people take advantage of it, and you don’t have to be a resident of that town,” Nerheim added. “We had one guy cross a couple of county lines from the south to go to Mundelein after hearing about it on the news. (It’s) about people ready to help themselves.”

Departments participating in A Way Out include Grayslake, Gurnee, Libertyville, Mundelein, Lake Forest, Round Lake Beach and Round Lake Park. Nerheim said other departments can refer people to those departments.

When people do end up in jail with an addiction, Rose said officials have a program for them. Since August, five people joined a program where they are given Vivatrol, which can cut opioid cravings for up to 28 days with a single injection. According to Rose, Lake County is only the second county in the state to administer the drug, whose cost has dropped from $1,100 per treatment to just $3.

“It’s the best option in terms of treatment,” Rose said. “It cuts the craving and the need for opioids, and it does a good job of doing it. This really seems to be a success. The problem is once they are out, they need to seek treatment on their own.”

Lake County Opioid Initiative co-founder Chelsea Laliberte — who lost her brother, Alex “Lali” Laliberte, in December 2008 to an overdose involving heroin and other drugs — said A Way Out will be expanded this year to a few more departments because a little more funding is available.

“That program has helped 65 people since June,” said Laliberte, whose family started Live4Lali, a foundation fighting to save lives through the antidote.

Live4Lali also has a clinic in Arlington Heights, open three days a week, where parents can get educational materials, free training and the antidote if they suspect their child may be experimenting with heroin or opioids. They have trained 600 parents, and Lali’s Law in Illinois now allows someone to ask for the antidote at a pharmacy.

“It’s always about ‘just in case,'” Laliberte said. “There is a stigma that families don’t want to talk about it because they are so ashamed.”

She added that the problem of opioid addiction knows no geographical boundaries, with the 130 saves happening in towns from Antioch to Zion, Waukegan to Fox Lake, and more high-income communities like Highland Park, Deerfield, Libertyville and Buffalo Grove.

“This is an issue that affects all walks of life,” Laliberte said. “This is not going away. People need to reach out and ask for help. There are so many resources out there.”

Cooper said his office is starting a pilot program this spring to address the issue with high school students.

“I believe to stop it, we need to get into the schools,” he said. “I want kids to know that the first time you try (opioids), you can be hooked. And it’s a very difficult habit to break.”

Next school year, Cooper said he intends to go to all the high schools in the county and then maybe middle schools.

This year, the Lake County Health Department’s Behavioral Health and Primary Care program will use a $325,000 grant from the U.S. Health Resources and Services Administration, an agency with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, to double the number of people in its Medication Assisted Treatment program for opioid addiction.

“We’ve added 65 patients as part of our program, and our goal is to get to 100 new clients,” said Loretta Dorn, director of clinical operations for the program. “That will bring the total to 200 overall. It shows you what kind of need there is.”

According to Dorn, it takes about a week from the first call to get into the program, which is offers outpatient treatment only.

“We found people can be successful in outpatient treatment,” she said. “But there are a lot of people who need more additional treatment.”

Dominic Caputa, the Health Department’s associate director of clinical operations, said the other aim of the program is get people additional services.

“They can get access to therapy, primary care and a dentist,” he said, adding that charges are based on a sliding scale of affordability.

Nerheim said some progress is being made, because Lake County is doing better at addressing opioid addiction than other areas of the country.

“Nationally, the rates are still climbing, but here in Lake County they are leveling off and declining,” he said, adding that some of the decline can be attributed to all the overdose saves that didn’t become a death statistic.

Between 2000 and 2015, the national rate of deaths from drug overdoses has increased 137 percent, including a 200 percent increase in the rate of overdose deaths involving opioids, which are classified as opioid pain relievers and heroin, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

More persons died from drug overdoses in the United States in 2014 than during any previous year on record. From 2000 to 2014, nearly half a million people in the United States died from drug overdoses. In 2014, there were approximately 1.5 times more drug overdose deaths in the United States than deaths from motor vehicle crashes, according to the CDC.

Laliberte said Lake County is fortunate, because many other areas in Illinois and other states do not have the cooperation between the community, advocates, law enforcement and the health department.

“It’s working. It’s not perfect, but we’re certainly making a lot of progress,” she said. “It’s a very complex problem and requires us to try new strategies. Really it’s a community problem and it will take a community response.”

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