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Daily Journal
November 29, 2022
#63-333 KDJ

Empty Chair Campaign draws attention to overdose

By Jeff Bonty

KANKAKEE — The holiday season is for family and friends.

For many, it is a joyous time, but for some, a chair sits empty at the dinner table.

In Kankakee County, families are missing a total of 87 loved ones who died from drug-related overdoses since 2021.

Kankakee County State’s Attorney Jim Rowe and Coroner Bob Gessner are drawing attention this weekend to the local overdose crisis with the Empty Chair Campaign, staging 87 chairs, covered with a purple ribbon in honor of Overdose Awareness, on the front lawn of the Kankakee County Courthouse to represent the lives lost to drugs.

Each chair represents a victim of a drug-related overdose death between 2021-22. The display will remain through Sunday.

“We are hoping this will have a little more of an impact,’’ Rowe explained. “Ideally, we want there to be no chairs next year.”

Rowe said the idea for the chair display came from Chris Borchardt and Miles Maiden, who are community outreach coordinators in the state’s attorney’s office.

Maiden has lost two family members to drug-related overdoses, Rowe said.

Overdose deaths

There have been 44 confirmed drug-related overdose deaths in the county for Fiscal Year 2021-22, Gessner said.

His office uses the fiscal year, which runs from Dec. 1 to Nov. 30, for county budget reasons.

They are waiting for final toxicology reports for three other probable overdoses, Gessner said.

In FY 2020-21, there were 43 drug-related overdose deaths, according to statistics provided by Gessner’s office. They can be found at kankakeecountycoroner.org.

For FY 2020-21, 84% of all overdose deaths were attributed to fentanyl, 46% of all deaths were attributed to cocaine and 15% of all deaths were attributed to heroin.

There were 50 drug-related overdoses in FY 2019-20. FY 2017-18 and FY 2018-19 each had 29 drug-related overdoses.

Provisional data from Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Health Statistics indicate there were an estimated 107,622 drug overdose deaths in the United States during 2021, an increase of nearly 15% from the 93,655 deaths estimated in 2020. The 2021 increase was half of what it was the previous year, when overdose deaths rose 30% from 2019 to 2020.

The new CDC data show overdose deaths involving opioids increased from an estimated 70,029 in 2020 to 80,816 in 2021. Overdose deaths from synthetic opioids (primarily fentanyl), psychostimulants, such as methamphetamine, and cocaine also continued to increase in 2021 compared to 2020.


Borchardt and Maiden both work with Gessner, who takes his drug-related overdose educational program to schools, churches, businesses, service organizations and any other group interested.

Gessner has said he will talk to anybody, anytime in order to get the word out.

During these presentations, Gessner talks about another drug being found in toxicology reports of victims of drug-related overdose deaths — xylazine.

Xylazine is a veterinary tranquilizer, which is not approved for human use in the United States, but is commonly used for sedating large animals, according to sciencedirect.com.

It joins fentanyl and carfentanil in being mixed with heroin, cocaine and methamphetamine.

There have been three OD deaths where xylazine has been found this year in the victim’s system, Gessner said.

In July, Gessner said he received a warning about the drug from the Drug Enforcement Agency.

Narcan, which is used to treat the effects of an opioid drug overdose, does not work with xylazine, Gessner said.

“We are working very hard across the state to get the word out, Gessner said.

One thing that would help is funding from the state, he said.

Gessner said he is working with State Rep. Jackie Haas and State Sen. Patrick Joyce to get a bill passed that would do just that.

Educating the public is important,” Rowe said.

“We have to do everything possible to get the word out about this epidemic,” he said.

Jeff Bonty is a reporter for The Daily Journal. He can be reached at jbonty@daily-journal.com and 815-937-3366.

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