OPIOIDS’ GROWING TOLL
Cook County officials see doubling of ‘needless, preventable’ deaths
In the clutches of a deadly pandemic and a rise in street violence, Cook County is also on track to double the number of opioid overdose deaths it saw last year, officials said Tuesday, “sounding the alarm” on yet another crisis.
Last year, the Cook County medical examiner’s office handled 605 opioid overdose deaths between January 1 and July 13. This year that number is 773, though that only tells part of the story, Dr. Ponni Arunkumar said.
“We also have 580 pending cases,” the medical examiner said. “We know that traditionally 70[%] to 80% of those cases will wind up being ruled as opioid overdose deaths. This means that there are 400 to 465 more opioid deaths thus far this year. Realistically, just 6½ months into 2020, we already have more than 1,200 opioid-related deaths.”
Those who have died are “overwhelmingly people of color,” Arunkumar said. Of the 773 deaths so far this year, 63% have been Black or Latino. Many are also 45 years old or older — 45- to 55-year-olds, as well as 55- to 64-year-olds are the two age groups that are most likely to “succumb to an opioid overdose death,” Arunkumar said.
Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle said the county must be a voice for preventing “future, needless, preventable deaths plaguing our community.”
“Our county and our nation are facing a number of alarming challenges,” Preckwinkle said. “The victims of the opioid epidemic have been quietly dying around us.”
The Cook County medical examiner’s office has seen a substantial growth in all cases — it handles the second most cases in the country, just after Los Angeles. In an average year, Cook County handles 6,300 deaths from all causes. Just 6½ months into the year, the office has handled 8,000 cases and will soon hit 9,000, due in part to the coronavirus pandemic and the gun violence the city and county have seen in recent months.
The number of opioid cases the county has seen has also grown, telling a “grim story,” Arunkumar said.
In 2019, Arunkumar’s office handled a total of 1,267 opioid deaths, compared with 1,148 the year before.
Dr. Steven Aks, the director of toxicology at Cook County Health, said that while there’s been an increase in the number of people dying, there’s been a decrease in the number of people coming to emergency rooms.
County officials offered no theories on why those suffering from overdoses are not showing up at the ER. But they made it clear that that decision could mean the difference between life and death.
“What we’d like to say is that it’s safe here — that’s the most important message,” Aks said. “This is extremely alarming with respect to opioid overdoses, because for each EMS run that a paramedic brings a patient to the hospital, if they make it to our care, they will likely live, and that’s very important for individuals to know — the patients given naloxone in the ambulance or at the scene, they will likely survive.”
The county is working to “blanket” communities with as much naloxone, a drug that can reverse an overdose, as possible, though there’s not nearly enough of the drug in communities, said Dr. Kiran Joshi, one of the leaders of the county’s Department of Public Health. The county is working on building partnerships with law enforcement and linking people to care, Joshi said.
“While it’s not super expensive, it’s not cheap either, and so what we’ve found is that communities — often the communities where we have the most overdoses happening among the most vulnerable populations — do not have the naloxone that they need. So, there’s a significant need.”
The county’s medical examiner has already handled more cases than it has last year — and the county’s death toll in 2020 is higher than in 2019 due to a mixture of natural causes, the pandemic, street violence and opioids, Preckwinkle said.
“All of those things together have had a devastating impact on the health of our community,” Preckwinkle said. “And I think we can anticipate that we will continue to see, if not the magnitude of deaths from COVID-19 we’ve seen this summer, but an uptick in the fall, an echo or a second wave.
“And as you have seen, we continue to struggle with the violence, particularly in the streets of Chicago, and we’re here today to talk about the opioid overdose crisis as well. So, the pandemic continues, and the violence continues, and we continue to see the overdoses. I’m not sure anybody can predict what the exact magnitude of that challenge is going to be, but it’s already pretty serious.”
A former Chicago Public Schools football coach has been accused of sexually assaulting one of his players, photographing him nude and posting the photos in the victim’s apartment building and along the route to his school.
The teenage boy was attacked by Curtis Thomas while he was a student at CPS, Cook County prosecutors said in bond court over the weekend.
Thomas worked at the Bronzeville Scholastic Institute High School as a school community representative, according to CPS. He was removed from his position in 2013, terminated in 2014 and placed on the “do not hire” list.
CPS officials wouldn’t confirm whether Thomas was a football coach. But prosecutors said Thomas was one of the coaches on the boy’s football team and initially assaulted the boy after he started playing for the team when he turned 15 in 2010.
Thomas, 51, has been charged with criminal sexual assault and child pornography and aggravated criminal sexual abuse of a second victim.
The first alleged victim met Thomas when he was a 14-year-old freshman. During a practice session, the teenager hurt his tailbone after being tackled, and Thomas took him back to the locker room to tend to his injuries. While in the locker room, Thomas allegedly massaged the victim’s “legs, buttocks and back” before pulling the boy’s pants down and assaulting him.
Thomas then took nude pictures of the victim and threatened to show his mother if he told anyone, prosecutors said.
The assaults, which took place from 2010 to February 2013 when the victim turned 17, led to harassment once the boy tried to end the abuse, prosecutors said.
CPS launched an investigation after Thomas was seen pulling the victim out of class and escorting him to an empty classroom, where the boy was sexually assaulted. But the victim denied anything inappropriate happened at the time, prosecutors said.
The boy’s mother eventually transferred him to another school, and Thomas was told by CPS officials that he was not allowed to have any contact with the teenager. Thomas didn’t listen, prosecutors said.
When the boy’s mother found text messages from Thomas on his phone in February 2013, the teenager opened up to her about the three years of abuse, prosecutors said. The mother and son filed a police report. And when the boy’s mother believed that Thomas was still following him, they filed a stalking report and sought an order of protection.
Then, that May, Thomas was seen posting flyers of the victim with images of him engaging in sex acts and in the nude, prosecutors said. The flyers were posted in the victim’s apartment building and along his walking path to school.
After the flyers were discussed during a court hearing for the order of protection, Thomas approached the boy’s mother and allegedly said, “Wait till you see the next set.”
CPS spokesman James Gherardi said, “Chicago Public Schools is grateful that justice is being pursued against a former employee accused of abuse and the district is fully cooperating and supportive of the legal proceedings. Protecting students is our highest priority and the district has made transformative changes to processes to better respond and prevent instances of abuse.”
The second victim is a distant relative of Thomas, prosecutors said. That victim was 14 when Thomas is alleged to have sexually abused him after a night out at the movies.
Thomas was ordered held without bail.
Dr. Ponni Arunkumar, Cook County’s chief medical examiner, and County Board President Toni Preckwinkle are “sounding the alarm” on opioid deaths.
Curtis Thomas is accused of assaulting a student, then making nude photos of the student and posting them in the youth’s apartment building.