After a dip five years ago, yearly deaths involving opioid overdose in Champaign County have stayed above 60 a year, state data shows.
In the few years before 2018, there were typically around 30 to 35 deaths per year except for a spike to 56 in 2017. Public health data shows the causes of overdoses included heroin, fentanyl, synthetic opioids and prescription medications.
Data from the Illinois Department of Public Health shows Champaign County had a crude fatal overdose rate of 2.30 in 2022, compared to the 2.95 state rate. The department’s Opioid Data Dashboard describes the crude overdose rate as “the rate of opioid overdose per 10,000 population for all demographics in a given geographical area.”
Joe Trotter, harm reduction program coordinator for the Champaign-Urbana Public Health District, said most of the deaths were accidental overdoses due to the drugs being laced with fentanyl, a powerful synthetic opioid.
Trotter said fentanyl started showing up in drug testing done in Champaign around 2018. Because it is a small and strong drug, fentanyl is often mixed into the drug supply as a way to save money.
“As fentanyl has become saturated within the drug use population, we’re seeing the amount of deaths go up from that,” Trotter said. “That’s one of the main drivers right now and it’s become a routine part of our drug supply now.”
Trotter also said over half of the overdose deaths in Champaign are in the Black community. In addition to that, most overdose deaths are from people over the age of 45 of any race or gender.
State data shows that out of 67 overdose deaths in Champaign County during 2022, 35 were people aged 45 or older. Trotter said looking at demographics is one way the health district guides its efforts going forward.
The increase in opioid overdose deaths is seen as a nationwide trend, not just something unique to Champaign County. Trotter noted the pandemic can be blamed for a lot of the upward trend in opioid deaths across the country.
“The pandemic really overhauled everything because so many services for people that use drugs stopped during the pandemic,” Trotter said. “People couldn’t have meetings, it was harder to get into drug treatment. Unemployment went up which means that drug use is going to build up. It feels like we’re starting to rebuild all that a bit.”
Data shows a dramatic increase in deaths before the pandemic, jumping from 31 in 2018 to a peak of 87 in 2019. Deaths slightly decreased to 79 in 2020 and fell further to 63 in 2021 before rebounding to 67 last year.
People consuming drugs alone is another reason why drug overdose deaths occur. When people overdose alone, they have no one there to save them or call for help.
“We have a lot of people that are using drugs alone… when they use more than they can handle at that moment, it’s nearly impossible for them to save themselves,” Trotter said.
The Champaign Health District supplies Narcan, which is the overdose medication given to someone that reverses the effects of an overdose and causes them to regain consciousness.
According to Trotter, the data tells them that the more Narcan supplied in an area, the less deaths they have. The health district has a grant it uses to get Narcan out into the community, where anyone can walk in and get free Narcan with no questions asked. Community members can visit the Champaign-Urbana Public Health District’s website to learn more.
Trotter noted that while the opioid issue in Champaign is prevalent, it isn’t being talked about enough:
“The opioid epidemic is for sure present, but we don’t have a lot of people that are talking about it. In this area, it feels like it’s a silent epidemic… I wish people would talk about it and be able to experience less stigma when they talk about it,” he said.
Despite worsening numbers of synthetic opioid overdoses statewide, Trotter said he has hope. There is a stronger movement for medication-assisted recovery in Illinois, which can help people recover faster.
The state public health department defines medication-assisted treatment (MAT) as the use of medications with other therapies to treat substance use disorders. The department said the combination of medications with behavior therapy and other support can lead to the best outcomes to help normalize brain chemistry.
“People usually age out or phase out of using drugs. We need systems and resources to be available for people until that time when they’re ready to start recovering,” Trotter said.
Editor’s Note: A previous version of this article linked to the incorrect resources for Narcan. The correct web pages are Syringe Exchange and Young Adult Resources on the county public health website or by calling 217-531-5365.