Cook County continues to see increase in opioid-related deaths: 'It's time for us to wake up'

America's fentanyl epidemic has gotten so bad that some morgues could soon run out of room.

In Chicago, the Cook County Medical Examiner needed more room and more resources during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Now, COVID deaths have dropped, but the morgue still needs extra space due to deaths from fentanyl.

Dr. Ponni Arunkumar, the Cook County Chief Medical Examiner, said the most common non-natural death is opioids.

Opioid-related deaths in Cook County have nearly tripled from 675 in 2017 to nearly 2,000 deaths last year.

"Most of them were related to fentanyl," said Dr. Arunkumar.

Nationally — it's even worse.

Deaths rose from 6,000 in 2015 to over 63,000 last year.

Fentanyl is the biggest factor, and coroners across the country are saying its tough to keep up with the amount of deaths.

Dr. Arunkumar says these deaths are all preventable.

In 2016, Kathy Zander said her son ingested drugs that contained fentanyl, which ultimately killed him.

He was buried on what would have been his 23rd birthday.

"These choices that they're making, they're not able to learn from their mistakes because they're dying," said Zander.

Zander says fentanyl is a weapon of mass destruction.

"It's time for us to wake up and to get this stuff off the street," said Zander.

Caitlin Strebing's 35-year-old brother accidentally overdosed on fentanyl last year. She now advocates for substance abuse disorders and fentanyl awareness.


"Fentanyl is the leading cause of death in the U.S. right now for ages 18 to 45, and I think that alone speaks for itself," said Strebing.

So far, there is no sign of stopping.

Cook County's morgue has brought in refrigerated trailers. The medical examiner says they can't handle all the bodies — at least for now.

Many coroners' offices are saying the uptick in drug-related deaths is putting a big strain on their resources and staff, causing some to increase their budget to address the problem.