DuPage County Coroner Richard Jorgensen said that the heroin epidemic and the "bad, dirty disease" of addiction has taken more lives this year than any in recent memory with four more months to go until the year's end.
"Eventually, all people that are involved in serious drugs, and especially heroin, devolve in to a very, very serious spiral that ends up either in rehabilitation if you're lucky, our criminal justice system if you're also lucky, or death," he said in a presentation to the DuPage County Board Sept. 24.
Jorgensen said his office has identified 38 people who have died of heroin overdose so far this year, which is the same amount as the total number of heroin deaths last year. The 38 deaths do not include numbers from September or from the remainder of the year.
He credited the spike in deaths to an influx of unusually high-strength heroin in the area, as opposed to a sudden rise in users.
Jorgenson also noted the wide range of ages in those dead. The oldest person to die of heroin overdose was 64 and the youngest was 15.
"This is a real problem in all ages, all municipalities and all socio-economic strata," he said.
Jorgensen said that, due to the increased purity of the product, heroin can now be smoked or snorted, instead of injected. That is a major driver of youth use, he said. Reliance on painkillers has also gotten some addicted to narcotics later in life.
The deaths came from a wide range of different towns during the last two years, he said. Lombard saw the highest total, with nine deaths
Jorgensen stressed that education and awareness were key, asking the County Board to get more involved in spreading the message.
First responders and some families across the county will begin carrying Narcan, a medication that can reverse an overdose, in the next month and a half, Jorgensen said.
There are still some legal issues in the implementation of the 2010 Illinois state law that allows non-medical personnel to use the drug, according to Jorgenson, but he said he and the State's Attorney's Office were evaluating options.
Board members Tony Michelassi and Elizabeth Chaplin suggested the county consider pushing school districts to re-introduce the DARE anti-drug program as well as extend the option to job sites to reach more members of the population.
Board member Sam Tornatore said that in his work as an attorney, he noticed many heroin addicts brought in on drug charges were repeat offenders. The lack of job opportunities as a former felon played a major role in the return to addiction, he said.
"Without people who are willing to give these kids a job, there's a continuum of getting arrested," he said.
After the meeting, Jorgensen said that while education was important and the main focus of the county, there needed to be more attention paid to resources for existing addicts.
"I think that's what we're lacking," he said. "That's part of the outreach I want to be involved in and we at the county want to be involved in ... We want to find organizations that do work with addicts and support those types of organizations."
Chairman Dan Cronin said that the for now, action at the county level on the "public health crisis" would likely come from the Department of Public Health.
"They work on behavioral health and they are very good at dealing with some mental illness issues," he said. "This would change their mission slightly, so we'd have to think this through."
"But this is a crisis and a crisis requires different approaches," he said.