OPI­OIDS’ GROW­ING TOLL

Cook County of­fi­cials see dou­bling of ‘need­less, pre­ventable’ deaths

Chicago Sun-Times - - TOP NEWS - BY RACHEL HIN­TON, STAFF RE­PORTER rhin­ton@sun­times.com | @rrhin­ton

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.

PAT NABONG/SUN-TIMES

Dr. Ponni Arunk­u­mar, Cook County’s chief med­i­cal ex­am­iner, and County Board Pres­i­dent Toni Preck­win­kle are “sound­ing the alarm” on opi­oid deaths.

PRO­VIDED

Curtis Thomas is ac­cused of as­sault­ing a stu­dent, then mak­ing nude pho­tos of the stu­dent and post­ing them in the youth’s apart­ment build­ing.

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