August 31, 2020

Chicago Department of Public Health Responds to Rising Number of Opioid Overdoses Centered on the City’s West Side

Mid-year opioid report shows rise in overdoses as City and community partners mark International Overdose Awareness Day

Alicia McGhee     alicia.mcghee@cityofchicago.org

CHICAGO – A mid-year report released today by the Chicago Department of Public Health (CDPH) shows a significant increase in opioid overdoses and opioid-related deaths in the city so far in 2020, many centered on Chicago’s West Side. The report was released as the City and community partners marked International Overdose Awareness Day on Monday by providing services and supports to those living with opioid use disorder and raising awareness of drug overdose as a critical public health issue.  

CDPH joined the West Side Heroin/Opioid Task Force and several other community stakeholders for International Overdose Awareness Day activities. Groups are providing services including overdose reversal training and distribution of Narcan/naloxone, as well as referral to medication assisted recovery for substance use disorder treatment and housing assistance.

CDPH analysis of Cook County Medical Examiner data, which is detailed in the mid-year report, shows that there were 573 opioid-related overdose deaths in Chicago from January-June 2020, a 55% increase from the same time period in 2019. There were 7,301 opioid-related EMS responses during that time frame, a 60% increase from last year. Health officials note that these numbers are provisional and subject to change upon further investigation, but the trends are nonetheless stark.

In order to address this growing crisis, CDPH is working with its community partners to pursue other solutions and making additional investments in overdose prevention and linkage to treatment services for opioid use disorder:   

  • CDPH has funded the Illinois Public Health institute (IPHI) to convene a Learning Collaborative for hospital and community-based medical providers to expand evidence-based approaches to overdose prevention and treatment of opioid use disorder (OUD). 
  • With guidance from the West Side Heroin/Opioid Task Force, CDPH helped to facilitate the formation of the new South Side Opioid Task Force. CDPH also provided guidance in harm reduction to organizations that provide direct services to people who use drugs.
  • As a new initiative this year, CDPH has been tracking the number of opioid-related EMS responses on a monthly basis and sharing data with local health care providers, harm reduction groups, first responders, behavioral health service organizations, homeless shelter staff, and other community based organizations through our Health Alert Network (HAN) system.    
  • CDPH will fund increased partnerships between substance use mobile outreach teams and MOUD (medications for opioid-use disorder) prescribers who can use telehealth technology to assess and prescribe treatment medications to patients as they are engaged by outreach workers in the field.  
  • CDPH will be providing additional funding to support the formation of cross-sector partnerships between hospitals with the highest volume of overdoses in their ER’s and community-based providers of opioid use disorder (OUD) treatment.

The CDPH report revealed that opioid-related overdose deaths were the highest among men, non-Latinx Blacks, and adults age 45-54. However, the greatest increases in overdose deaths from the first half of 2020 were among those aged 15-24 and 65-74, although among the younger cohort there were no deaths reported in anyone under 18.  

Nearly 60% of fatal overdoses have occurred in Black individuals, although Blacks make up less than a third of the city’s population, and there was a 66% increase in the rate of fatal overdoses in Blacks so far this year.

“These numbers are troubling and unfortunately reflect the racial inequities we see in other areas of society,” said CDPH Commissioner Allison Arwady, M.D. “These inequities are a major focus of our work at CDPH and the City, and this report is a call for all of us to double down on the commitment to close these gaps.”

Overdoses continue to be concentrated on the West Side of Chicago. Humboldt Park had the highest number of overdoses in the city during this period, followed by Austin and East and West Garfield Park. There were increases on the South Side, as well, and opioid-related overdoses have impacted all 77 community areas.

The data show that fentanyl, a powerful synthetic opioid, was involved in 82% of the overdose deaths so far this year, representing an increase of 56% in fentanyl-involved overdoses year to date. In addition, the rate of cocaine-involved overdose deaths has increased by 47%. This may suggest that fentanyl is increasingly present in the cocaine supply.

“While our data shows overdoses were increasing before the pandemic, I don’t think there is any question that the pandemic has made it worse. The pandemic has deepened the problem of social isolation and the accompanying economic uncertainties have the potential to really increase stress levels for people and increase risk of returning to use or escalation of use,” said Matt Richards, Deputy Commissioner for Behavioral Health at CDPH. “Continuing to deliver essential overdose prevention and treatment services to persons at greatest risk during the pandemic is critical.  We have responded by directing resources and investment to these areas of need and are launching new initiatives to address this critical public health issue.”

During the COVID-19 pandemic, CDPH has been proactively providing consultations to behavioral health and substance use recovery service providers on infection control practices that would allow them to continue providing their recovery services in a way that mitigates the risk of spreading COVID-19. In addition, CDPH has expanded overdose prevention and harm reduction services in communities of highest need, including naloxone distribution (naloxone is medication given to reverse an opioid overdose), syringe services, and linkage to medications used to treat opioid use disorder. In partnership with the Chicago Police Department and Thresholds, CDPH has also piloted a novel mobile substance use treatment team, which connects eligible persons arrested for possession of cocaine or heroin to substance use and mental health treatment in the community as an alternative to booking or criminal charges.

“West Side Heroin/Opioid Task Force members are proud to join together to observe International Overdose Awareness Day. It is a time for reflection, memorial, and re-commitment to our collaborative efforts to save lives,” said Lee Rusch, Director of the West Side Heroin/Opioid Task Force. “We know that Naloxone saves lives, treatment works, and recovery is possible.”

For more information about opioids in Chicago visit https://overcomeopioids.org/, and to see the mid-year opioid report, please visit: https://www.chicago.gov/content/dam/city/depts/cdph/tobacco_alchohol_and_drug_abuse/Mid-Year%20Opioid%20Report%202020%20final.pdf.

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