A macro shot of syringe with needle. | Photo by Raghavendra V. Konkathi on Unsplash

Opioid-related deaths jumped dramatically in 2020 compared to 2019, with the number of deaths among African-Americans nearly doubling, according to a report released in December by the Chicago Department of Public Health (CDPH). 

The CDPH regularly releases these reports at the end of the year, but because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Cook County medical examiner’s office has been slow processing and recording deaths. 

The 2020 data brief wasn’t released until Dec. 31, 2021, and the department doesn’t expect to be able to release a report on 2021 data until the end of March 2022. 

Dr. Wilnise Jasmin, the CDPH’s director of behavioral health, presented the report’s findings at the Jan.19 virtual meeting of the West Side Heroin/Opioid Task Force, a collaboration of West Side healthcare providers and social service organizations organized by State Rep. La Shawn Ford (8th). 

The participants agreed that the upswing in numbers didn’t surprise them, since it matches what they observed on the ground. But CDPH  and the task force members are redoubling their efforts to treat addiction, expanding resources and services throughout the West Side.

According to the data brief, 2020 saw 1,303 opioid-related deaths — a notable increase compared to 855 deaths in 2019. The percent of overdoses per 100,000 people went up by about 52%. The number of EMT responses to overdoses increased by 32%. As in 2019, three community areas that saw the highest number of opioid-related deaths in 2020 were Austin, Humboldt Park and North Lawndale. 

The report indicated that the first time since CDPH began tracking opioid deaths, the number of overdoses went up for all demographics. But some demographics experienced larger increases than others. 

Among Black, non-Hispanic residents, the number of deaths city-wide went up from 483 to 746, with the rate increasing by 56%. By comparison, along white non-Hispanic residents, the number of deaths went up from 260 to 342, with the rate going up by 28%. 

There was also a disparity in terms of income. The rate of deaths in communities facing “medium” economic hardship saw the highest increase, going up by 62%. The communities facing “high” economic hardship saw the increase of 59%. 

According to the report, “death rates remained highest among men; Black, Non-Latinx; adults aged 55-64; and persons living in communities experiencing high economic hardship.”

Jasmin said that her department continues to try to reduce the number of overdoses. It is increasing distribution of Naloxone, also known as Narcan, a medicine that reverses the effects of the overdose. Jasmine said that CDPH is putting in Naloxone kits in public libraries. The first phase included all West Side libraries except North Lawndale’s Douglass branch library, 3353 W. 13th St., but she said that Douglass library will get the kits in the next round.

The CDPH is also trying to address underlying stresses that may drive people to use opioids or cause them to relapse.n  

“Grief is a normal process,” Jasmin said. “It’s okay to be feeling grief, but there are also supports [available] to be able to manage your grief.”

Residents can locate mental health service providers in their area at findtreatment.samhsa.gov and mentalhealth.chicago.gov.

“All of the facilities and organizations on the West Side, they’re seeing patients regardless of their insurance,” Jasmin said, adding that many of them offer sliding scale payment structure based on income. We want to make the barrier as low as possible for anyone receiving mental health care.”

Task force chair Lee Rusch said that his group’s collaboration with CDPH “has grown tremendously,” adding that they have monthly meetings with addiction treatment providers and share data on where overdoses happen. 

While the pandemic complicated in-person outreach, it hasn’t stopped it.

“The direct intervention outreach team trained over 3,300 individuals and distributed twice as many Naloxone/Narcan [kits],” Rusch said.

In the meeting Zoom chat, Ford reflected that, while he appreciates the work that is being done,  the pandemic demonstrated that government has the power to do more.

“Could you imagine if the federal government would treat this [opioid addiction] pandemic like the COVID pandemic and allow families to order naloxone like the COVID test?” he wrote.

Read the complete 2021 data brief at https://www.chicagohan.org/alert-detail/-/alert-details/46669681?p_r_p_categoryId=440394

Igor Studenkov

Igor Studenkov is a winner of multiple Illinois Press Association awards for local government and business reporting. He has been contributing to Austin Weekly News since 2015. His work has also appeared...