Monday is Overdose Awareness Day, an annual event aimed at reducing drug-related deaths and the stigma of substance use disorders. And it comes this year amid a dramatic spike in opioid-related overdoses and deaths in Chicago.
“If we took the COVID deaths out of the equation, our office would be on track to match our caseload in 1995, the year of the Chicago heat wave,” said Dr. Ponni Arunkumar, Cook County’s chief medical examiner said at a press conference last week. “We are seeing unprecedented numbers of opioid overdoses. … If the current trend continues, we would see as many or more than 2,000 opioid deaths this year.”
On Monday, members of the West Side Heroin-Opioid Task Force sounded the alarm about how widespread the problem is, and how it disproportionately affects Black Chicagoans.
“Everyone standing out here knows someone that has died of an overdose, knows someone that is struggling right now with a substance use disorder, and knows someone that is struggling right now because of the death of someone from a substance use disorder,” said State Rep. La Shawn Ford (D-Chicago).
Tony Strong, a community health worker with Heartland Alliance Health’s opioid treatment program, says neighborhoods on Chicago’s West Side are bearing the brunt of the spike in deaths.
“They don’t have the same opportunities for treatment, detox, naloxone, better community health services,” Strong said. “A lot of times, these environments are so secluded that you really need a good outreach team to get to them so that they even know the opportunities that exist for them to get some help and some assistance.”
Strong says outreach is the cornerstone of the opioid treatment work that Heartland does, but that COVID-19 has made it a challenge.
“It’s hard to contact participants who often don’t have telephones, who often don’t have a residential address, and a lot of times they can’t come into the clinic because of COVID-19 restrictions placed on us by the state and the city,” Strong said. “We need to get out into the neighborhoods more and to let them know that we’re still available to assist them with any help that they need.”
And amid the stress of the pandemic and a polarized country, Strong said building relationships is key to helping those who need treatment for substance use disorders.
“It’s important to engage the participants exactly where they’re at. It’s not about judging them for their situation,” Strong said. “It’s just about, this is where you’re at, and we’re willing to help you get up off of the ground because we understand and we’re willing to give back.”
Note: This story will be updated with video.