La Salle County has one of the worst fatal opioid overdose rates in the state.
The Illinois Department of Public Health recently set up a web page, listing reported overdose figures by county and ZIP code, at idph.illinois.gov/OpioidDataDashboard. The page gives a local glimpse into the nationwide opioid problem that has been worsening in recent years.
Heroin is an opioid, as are fentanyl, methadone and prescription painkillers. They can be deadly on their own or mixed with each other and-or with alcohol. According to reports, the opioid problem worsened after painkillers became more commonly prescribed. Some patients became hooked, but in other cases the painkillers got into the hands of people for whom they were not prescribed.
Of 102 counties in Illinois, La Salle County was fifth worst for rate of deadly opioid overdoses in 2017, with a rate of almost four fatal overdoses per 10,000 residents. However, given the four other counties have populations betweem 22,000 and 4,900, La Salle County, with 111,000 residents, would be worst for counties of more than 100,000 population.
La Salle County ranked 15th for highest rate of nonfatal overdoses.
In raw numbers, there were 179 overdoses in the county in 2017, of which 40 were fatal. For comparison, there were 18 traffic crash deaths that year.
There have been eight overdose deaths and two traffic deaths this year in the county.
Overdoses by ZIP code
A check of ZIP codes in La Salle County showed the Streator area had 56 reported fatal and nonfatal overdoses last year — that's at least one per week. Streator's figure is about 31 percent of the county's total.
Ottawa, which has about 4,500 more residents in its ZIP code, registered 37 overdoses and Marseilles had 16 and Mendota had 14.
The side-by-side towns of Peru and La Salle, with similar size populations, contrasted sharply with one another — Peru had 10 overdoses and La Salle had more than twice that number, with 24.
If there were less than 10 overdoses in a ZIP code, the exact number is not listed for privacy concerns. Communities such as Oglesby, Utica and Seneca had less than 10.
Going outside La Salle County, the Morris area had 33 overdoses, Pontiac had 28 and Princeton had less than 10.
An IDPH spokeswoman explained an overdose is recorded in the ZIP code where the overdose victim lived, not where the overdose occurred.
"I don't see how we can arrest our way out of this epidemic. It's supply and demand and it's all about education," said Streator Police Chief Kurt Pastirik.
'Have to get inside the addict's mind'
There are anti-drug groups active in La Salle County, which work to educate the public, assist addicts and otherwise offer solutions.
However, Illinois State University Professor Dr. Ralph Weisheit, whose field is criminal justice and sociology, with expertise in rural crime and drug abuse, said a solution can be hard to find.
Weisheit said if an opioid addict wants help kicking their addiction, they can usually find it if they want, but unfortunately many users don't want help.
"You have to get inside the addict's mind. To them, knowing this stuff can kill means it's really good stuff. They see other people who die and tell themselves, 'That person just didn't know how to handle it. I'll be careful,' " Weisheit said.
The professor added dealers will mark particularly potent batches of heroin with names like "Last Rites" as a marketing tool of sorts, to let buyers know they're getting a powerful fix.
"That would scare most people away, but to the addict, it's an attraction," Weisheit said.
For those users who wish to quit, some may be deterred by community attitudes about drugs. An addict may fear that if they declare they're hooked on heroin or painkillers, they'll be looked down upon, according to Weisheit, who added drug epidemics have hit the country before.
Diane Farrell, chief clinical officer at North Central Behavioral Health, has worked with addicts for years. Her agency, which is based in La Salle, provides mental health counseling across seven counties. Farrell said the agency has 138 clients, or about 10 percent of total clients, with drug problems. Another 6 percent have alcohol problems.
Farrell noted doctors are on the "front line of the solution, but also of the problem." One such problem doctor was Constantino Perales, of Peru, who was found guilty last year of illegally dispensing drugs.
OSF HealthCare, which runs St. Elizabeth Medical Center in Ottawa and OSF Center for Health - Streator, is responding to the opioid problem, according to a written statement by an OSF doctor.
"OSF has several initiatives/projects to address the appropriate use of prescription opioids as well as to address opioid dependence," said Dr. Brian Rosborough, of St. Elizabeth.
Streator firefighter Kurt Snow, along with his fellow firefighters, regularly sees the problem up close on medical calls.
"We’re aware, as is everyone, that there is an opioid epidemic in our midst," he said, noting the problem is widespread.
Snow said firefighters, along with City Councilman and Streator firefighter Joe Scarbeary, have been vocal about the issue, and called on the council and city administration to work with existing organizations to combat the opioid problem.
He said data is incomplete as Narcan is now available over the counter and there is no way of tracking the overdoses that professional rescuers aren’t called to.
"Professional firefighters responding with Narcan to reverse an overdose and breathe life back into victims is a metaphorical Band-Aid on a gaping wound," he said in a written response. "Funding for better tracking and research of this epidemic with a focus on prevention of future addiction is what will fix this problem."
Farrell said a certain level of aid is readily available for addicts. For instance, she pointed out NCBH has a policy of getting people who ask for help into counseling within 48 hours. She added medication is also available to kick an addiction. However, if detoxification is needed, the wait to enter a state facility can take some time, depending on the type of addiction; heroin users have priority.
Cost also figures into the level of treatment a person can receive.
Some people become dependent on prescription painkillers because of work injuries. However, Farrell said there is a correlation between becoming addicted to painkillers and having prior addictions, such as to alcohol.
High opioid use in La Salle County can be seen as a manifestation of lesser substance abuse concerns in the county, as indicated in a 2011 report by the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
The report ranked every county in the United States as to healthy behavior. Of Illinois counties, La Salle County had the ninth worst behavior, largely because of the county's levels of smoking and drinking.