Heroin and opioid deaths set record in Rock Island County

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ROCK ISLAND -Rock Island County had a record number of opioid-related deaths in 2017.

"We  had 21 deaths last year. 2017 was a record year for us as far as opioid overdoses," said Rock Island County Coroner Brian Gustafson.

The victims ranged in age from their early 20s to 69-years-old.

Most of the cases involved heroin, seven were fentanyl-related, and some were due to an overdose of prescription pain pills.

Gustafson is hoping a new program set to launch in Rock Island County, called "Safe Passage" will save some lives.

The program, which has been in place in Lee and Whiteside Counties for two years, allows addicts to turn in their drugs without being arrested and get treatment.

"Nobody says when I grow up I want to become a heroin addict. So, we need to treat it as a disease and not a crime," said Gustafson, who spent years as a psychiatric nurse.

He said the increased number of autopsies has also stretched a lean budget. The county pays for the autopsies which are conducted in Rockford and Peoria.

On an average year, 30 to 40 autopsies are required.

"Last year, I did 54. I didn't used to do autopsy for overdoses, I would use the toxicology results instead. But, there is a push now by police to go after the individual who sold the product. If I don't perform an autopsy, they have no criminal case," he said.

Gustafson says he hopes opioid related deaths go down this year.

"We had 21 last year. I pray to God that it goes down to two. But the trend is not going that way."