As Netflix is debuting a new documentary this week called "Heroin(e)" about three women battling the opioid epidemic in West Virginia, McLean County Coroner Kathy Davis is waging her own one-woman crusade to help educate the community.
Davis is particularly concerned because seven people died from suspected drug overdoses just last week. That would bring the total drug-related deaths in McLean County to 28 so far this year, compared to 16 opioid-related deaths for all of last year.
Her biggest worry is the arrival of ultra-potent fentanyl, which is a powerful synthetic opioid that is considered 50 times more potent than heroin.
"They are called drop dead or super heroin, so the first time someone uses, they could die instantly," Davis said. "It is a very powerful drug out there. It's not something where you can get high off of (it). I mean, you literally drop dead."
The new deaths come as the state and federal government have put new emphasis on dealing with the opioid epidemic. President Donald Trump declared it a national emergency, and Gov. Bruce Rauner announced a new task force last week focused on preventing opioid-related deaths across Illinois.
Davis admits she has not been able to confirm any deaths by first-time users, but she says some family members of those who died did not even know their loved one was using drugs. In one case, Davis later learned a drug dealer did not know he was using heroin laced with a synthetic opioid.
"Even the drug dealers don't know if their stuff is bad sometimes," she said.
Davis sees one silver lining.
"We're blessed that we don't have carfentanyl yet, which [at] the size of a grain of salt can kill a 250-pound man," said Davis.
Carfentanyl is used to tranquilize large animals such as elephants and is not approved for human use. It showed up as the cause of death in two Sangamon County men earlier this year, including one who died when it was mixed with heroin.
Fentanyl and other synthetic opioids are often combined with heroin to increase the high. Statistics provided by Davis show only one case involving heroin this year in McLean County. It was mixed with methadone, which can be used to wean people from opioid dependency, but the narcotic can also be abused.
Toxicology Is Pending
Davis has not officially declared the seven deaths last week as drug overdoses because tests are pending. The sophisticated technology costs nearly $300 per test, but Davis thinks it's important to know exactly what is killing drug users.
"Law enforcement is taught to use Narcan, which reverses the effects of opioids and helps restore breathing. Some of these synthetic opioids are so powerful it takes nine or more doses," she said, suggesting first responders need to be prepared for what they might encounter.
Davis has presented at regional conferences to help educate health practitioners about opioid abuse. Last week, she spoke to an association of dentists, urging the group to consider prescribing alternatives such as acetometaphin when possible and to use the state's Drug Prescription Registry anytime they prescribe an opioid for pain. The monitoring program can help avoid doctor shopping by addicts, but it is not foolproof because it is only updated every 24 hours.
The governor's task force will carry out a comprehensive strategy developed by several state agencies with a goal of reducing opioid-related deaths by one-third by 2020.
A closer look at the drugs involved with McLean County's deaths, from 2015-17:
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