Despite opioid offensive, overdoses escalate in Illinois

An ABC7 I-Team Investigation

ByChuck Goudie and Christine Tressel WLS logo
Thursday, March 8, 2018
Despite opioid offensive, overdoses escalate in Illinois
For thousands of fentanyl abusers, these are the nicknames of death: Apache, China Girl, China White, Dance Fever, Friend, Goodfella, Jackpot, Murder 8, TNT, or Tango and Cash.

CHICAGO (WLS) -- Opioids are waging a heartland attack.

Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin are seeing a huge spike in emergency room visits due to opioid overdoses, according to the latest figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

CDC officials call it a "calamitous drug crisis" with Wisconsin ER's reporting the number of OD cases more than doubling between July 2016 to September 2017.

Illinois ER visits jumped 66 percent during the same period.

Nationwide in that stretch of time, more than 142,000 people were rushed to hospital emergency rooms for opioid overdoses - and CDC data suggest the trend is from bad to worse.

Illinois officials have recently rolled out a statewide effort to fight opioid abuse. In December, the Opioid Overdose Prevention and Intervention Task Force established an all-hours helpline to provide assistance to those impacted by pain killer addiction.

According to the most recent data, nearly 1,950 people died from opioid overdoses in Illinois. Task force leaders say they aim to "combat further drug overdose tragedies."

In Chicago, where opioid abuse has skyrocketed in recent years, hospitals are seeing a surge in overdose patients coming into their emergency rooms.

"Whether that be pill, prescriptions that are often times intentionally used, abused or overdosed as well as heroin and even heroin alternatives so a lot of increase in synthetic opioids," Dr. Mark Courtney of Northwestern Medicine's ER told the I-Team. "Fentanyl is something we are seeing a tremendously large amount of in terms of overdose patients that are coming."

When legitimately prescribed or used by doctors, Fentanyl is a superpower pain killer. Street-sale fentanyl is manufactured mostly in illicit overseas labs and goes by the names Apache, China Girl, China White, Dance Fever, Friend, Goodfella, Jackpot, Murder 8, TNT, or Tango and Cash.

Addict-grade fentanyl is usually mixed with heroin or cocaine producing a sometimes deadly potion.

"Sometimes the patients know they are taking fentanyl, sometimes they don't," Dr. Courtney said. "They may buy heroin expecting that the same dose will result in the same degree of effect for them and end up significantly and profoundly overdosed - difficulty breathing, sometimes not breathing at all."

According to the CDC:

-Eight states from three U.S. regions reporting substantial increases - 25 percent or greater - in the rate of opioid overdose ER visits.

-All five U.S. regions experienced rate increases; the largest was in the Midwest (70 percent), followed by the West (40 percent), Northeast (21 percent), Southwest (20 percent), and Southeast (14 percent).

-Every demographic group experienced substantial rate increases, including men (30 percent) and women (24 percent) and people ages 25-34 (31 percent), 35-54 (36 percent), and 55 or older (32 percent).

Illinois' statewide opioid helpline is available at 1-833-2FINDHELP and is funded through a federal grant from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

Federal drug enforcement officers are continually chasing new fentanyl products as they hit the streets of Chicago - mostly produced by illicit labs in China - then shipped by mail to the U.S. CDC officials say there should be better detection and response to spikes in overdoses and coordinated community responses. Illinois' task force approach really got going after the latest data, so if there are improvements, they may be in the next reporting cycle.