All but three of the 36 people known to have died so far this year of overdoses in Porter County tested positive for fentanyl, a deadly drug that is being blamed in part for a record number of ODs nationwide.

Fentanyl also was present in well over half (67%) of the 203 known drug overdose deaths that have occurred this year as of Nov. 1 in Lake County, Coroner Merrilee Frey said.

"Sadly, our community continues to lose those that we love due to opioid addiction," Frey said. "As community members, let's continue to be mindful of the important work that we do with regards to addressing our opioid epidemic, while helping those with opioid addiction and their families."

An estimated 100,000 Americans died of drug overdoses in one year, which health officials described as a never-before-seen milestone tied to the COVID-19 pandemic and a more dangerous drug supply.

Overdose deaths have been rising for more than two decades, accelerated in the past two years and, according to new data posted last week, jumped almost 30% in the latest year.

Drug overdoses now surpass deaths in this country from car crashes, guns and even flu and pneumonia, officials said. The total is close to that for diabetes, the nation's No. 7 cause of death.

The impact of drug overdoses can be seen in Porter County in the "skyrocketing" amount of the opiate-reversal drug naloxone that has been administered by local police officers over the last few years, said Kristi Chervenak, a deputy at the Porter County coroner's office.

"This disease is killing so many people," she said.

 

Porter County is already one fatal overdose away from matching last year's total, Chervenak said. She said 33 of those people who died last year had fentanyl in their systems.

"Fentanyl is really showing up on pretty much everything," she said.

With a month yet to go in 2021, Lake County is closing in on last year's 244 total drug overdose deaths, Frey said. Opioids played a role in 153 of the county's total overdose deaths so far this year, as compared to 193 for all of last year.

Fentanyl was detected in 147 of last year's overdose deaths, as compared to 135 already this year, she said.

"In a time of a worldwide COVID-19 pandemic, as Lake County coroner in my 10th year, I am daily reminded of our worldwide opioid epidemic," Frey said.

Experts nationally believe the top drivers of overdose deaths in this country are the growing prevalence of deadly fentanyl in the illicit drug supply and the COVID-19 pandemic, which left many drug users socially isolated and unable to get treatment or other support.

Drawing from the latest available death certificate data, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that 100,300 Americans died of drug overdoses from May 2020 to April 2021. It's not an official count. It can take many months for death investigations involving drug fatalities to become final, so the agency made the estimate based on 98,000 reports it has received so far.

The CDC previously reported there were about 93,000 overdose deaths in 2020, the highest number recorded in a calendar year. Robert Anderson, the CDC's chief of mortality statistics, said the 2021 tally is likely to surpass 100,000.

The new data shows many of the deaths involve illicit fentanyl, a highly lethal opioid that five years ago surpassed heroin as the type of drug involved in the most overdose deaths. Dealers have mixed fentanyl with other drugs — one reason that deaths from methamphetamines and cocaine also are rising.

Drug cartels in Mexico use chemicals from China to mass produce and distribute fentanyl and meth across America, said Anne Milgram, administrator of the Drug Enforcement Administration.

This year, the DEA seized 12,000 pounds of fentanyl, a record amount, Milgram said. But public health experts and even police officials say that law enforcement measures will not stop the epidemic, and more needs to be done to dampen demand and prevent deaths.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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