City, State and County Partner on Overdose Prevention Programs at Cook County Jail

November 22, 2022

Everyone Leaving Cook County Jail to be Offered Harm Reduction Tools and Referrals for Medication Assisted Recovery for Opioid Use Disorder

Anna Dolezal

CHICAGO - The Chicago Department of Public Health (CDPH) and the Illinois Department of Human Services Division of Substance Use Prevention and Recovery (IDHS/SUPR) are partnering with the Cook County Sheriff’s Office (CCSO) to scale up and expand distribution of harm reduction kits to everyone leaving Cook County Jail. Under the expansion, Narcan nasal spray will be offered universally, and fentanyl test strips will be newly available. The program will offer direct referrals to medication treatment for opioid use disorder and add three care coordinators to work in the re-entry center to provide this support to all people being released from Cook County Jail.

The partnership comes as the city, state and nation continue to see record-breaking opioid overdose deaths, due in large part to the presence of fentanyl, an extremely powerful synthetic opioid, in more substances. The U.S. surpassed 107,000 deaths from drug overdoses in 2021, an all-time high and a 15 percent increase from the previous record set in 2020. There were more than 1,400 fatal opioid overdoses in Chicago in 2021, the highest number ever recorded in the City and more than three times the number of fatal overdoses recorded in 2015. More than 85% of these local deaths involved fentanyl.

Overdose also remains one of the leading causes of the 10-year life expectancy gap between Black and white Chicagoans, a gap that widened during the pandemic.

People leaving incarceration are particularly vulnerable to overdose. Compared to the general population, people who have just been released from incarceration are 40-120 times more likely to die from an overdose in the first few weeks after their release due primarily to loss of tolerance while incarcerated. Even if someone does not use opioids and may not themselves be at risk of opioid overdose, providing universal access to Narcan as individuals leave Cook County Jail will help ensure that this life-saving medication is available for friends, family, and loved ones citywide.

"Narcan is a life-saving medication that is too often inaccessible to people who need it most. We are proud to partner with the City and County to ensure that the Cook County Sheriff's Office is able to make Narcan available to everyone leaving Cook County Jail,” said IDHS/SUPR Director, Laura Garcia. “It is critical that we collaborate as governmental agencies to ensure that returning residents have access to this life saving resource and to the supports necessary to connect to care."

This latest effort builds upon the jail’s long history of working to help individuals gain access to treatment and lifesaving naloxone.

In 2016, the Cook County Jail became one of the first jails in the nation to provide naloxone (Narcan) to individuals leaving custody, a natural extension of existing treatment programs offered inside the jail. To date, the jail, in partnership with Cook County Health, has distributed more than 7,500 naloxone kits to individuals leaving custody. Distribution is currently focused on those treated in custody for opioid withdrawal symptoms. Thousands of individuals have also enrolled in the jail’s specialized treatment programs and accessed medication-assisted treatment.

This new, multi-agency partnership enables the jail to expand naloxone distribution and facilitate additional options for post-release treatment services to potentially thousands more individuals leaving custody every year. “As we work to improve public safety and save lives, we must help individuals struggling with substance use disorder,” said Cook County Sheriff Thomas J. Dart. “Providing this additional support builds on the care these individuals are receiving while in jail, and it is critical to helping them stay on the path to recovery.”

Narcan is the nasal spray formulation of the medicine naloxone, which can be used to reverse the effects of opioid overdose until a person receives emergency medical treatment. If a person is not having an opioid overdose, the medicine has no effect. CDPH makes Narcan freely available at locations citywide, including at 80 libraries, and IDHS/SUPR provides large supplies of Narcan to organizations statewide through its Drug Overdose Prevention Program. Fentanyl test strips allow people who use drugs to test for fentanyl in their substances, helping them to make informed decisions to prevent overdose. Since October 2021, CDPH has distributed over 80,000 fentanyl test strips to individuals and organizations in Chicago.

“The opioid overdose crisis in Chicago disproportionately impacts Black communities in the City and overdose death is one of the leading causes of the Black-white life expectancy gap,” said CDPH Commissioner, Dr. Allison Arwady. “We must do everything we can to ensure that life- saving harm reduction resources like Narcan and access to effective treatment is available in all of our communities.”

Medication assisted recovery (MAR) involves the use of FDA-approved medications for the treatment of opioid use disorder. MAR is the standard of care for opioid use disorder, and also serves as a harm reduction intervention. However, only 20-30% of people diagnosed with opioid use disorder nationwide receive MAR due to barriers including stigma, provider availability, cost, and wait times.

In May, CDPH and IDHS/SUPR launched the MAR NOW (Medication Assisted Recovery NOW) treatment program, which vastly expands MAR availability by providing immediate opioid use disorder treatment 7 days/week to all Illinoisians, regardless of insurance status, income, or immigration status.

Family Guidance Centers, Inc., which has been providing medication assisted recovery in Chicago for over 50 years, operates MAR NOW through the existing 24/7 Illinois Helpline for Opioids and Other Substances. Call 833-234-6343 7 days/week to be connected to the program.

“Research shows that individuals with opioid use disorder who receive medication as part of their care stay in treatment longer and are significantly less likely to experience a fatal overdose, compared to those not receiving medication as part of their treatment. Family Guidance Centers is committed to reducing the wait time for these life-saving medications,” said Ron Vlasaty, FGC’s Chief Operating Officer.

Additionally, Family Guidance Centers is working with the Cook County Sheriff’s Office to park its mobile van that provides medications to treat opioid use disorder near the jail so that people leaving can immediately access this treatment opportunity.

The Sheriff’s Office will also integrate the MAR NOW hotline into information shared at its reentry center in order to facilitate linkage to immediate opioid treatment for people leaving the jail.

To request Narcan or fentanyl test strips from CDPH, email To register with IDHS/SUPR to become a Drug Overdose Prevention Program:


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