EMS Responses for Opioid Overdoses Fall Dramatically in Some Chicago West Side Communities

For Immediate Release, August 18, 2021:


For years, the residents in the Chicago West Side communities of Austin, East and West Garfield, and North Lawndale have been viewing reports of an ever-increasing number of opioid overdoses and fatalities. Indeed, these communities have been at the epicenter of opioid overdoses and related deaths in the city and the state. In the first half of 2020, according to the Chicago Department of Public Health HAN mid-report, there were 7,301 opioid-related EMS responses and 573 opioid-related deaths in Chicago in January to June 2020. That was a 60% increase in opioid-related EMS responses and a 55% increase in deaths compared to 2019. The most impacted community areas for EMS responses during that time were Humboldt Park (n= 837), Austin (n=799), West Garfield Park (n=613), East Garfield Park (n=599), and North Lawndale (n=408).


Given these grim numbers, it was the most excellent surprise that according to the CDPH August 13 Mid-Year Opioid Report the incidents of overdose responses and opioid overdose deaths decreased, in some cases dramatically in those communities. The largest declines were in Humboldt Park and East Garfield Park, where Humboldt Park and East Garfield Park, opioid-related overdose EMS responses decreased by over 50%. Humboldt Park had 470 fewer EMS responses, and East Garfield Park had 321 fewer responses. Two other communities’ opioid-related EMS responses declined as well, with Austin having 191 less calls and West Garfield Park 50 less calls.

“This is great news”, said Luther Syas, the Outreach Director for the West Side Heroin/Opioid Task Force, a dynamic community collaboration of harm reduction specialists, treatment providers, recovery organizations, persons with lived experience, and faith-and community-based organizations. “We know that the Task Force Outreach team and our partner organizations have distributed a lot of naloxone (the opioid antidote) over the past 18 months to folks out on the street and at community resource events and figured it was a matter of time before it began to make a difference,” said Syas.

The Task Force Outreach team is a six-person group who are all community residents, most with lived experience. The team has a keen understanding of the streets. Collectively, they have distributed over 8,000 doses of naloxone in its injectable and nasal spray form (Narcan) in the past year and half. After a short break to assess the safety measures needed as the pandemic rolled out, the team has continued to go out two to three times per week to the area hot-spots (places where drugs are purchased and used) to provide training and naloxone distribution. In the past year, they have been joined by organizations that provide treatment and referral to detox centers as well as those who provide medical care, distribute masks, hand-sanitizer, and hygiene kits. On many days, the collaboration acts as a street-level one-stop shop for persons experiencing Opioid Use Disorder, behavioral and physical health issues, and homelessness. Referrals to organizations who provide Medicine-Assisted Recovery have steadily increased recently with outreach team members conducting “warm handoffs” to providers who are out there with them.

Despite the encouraging news, “it is far too early for victory laps,” said Lee Rusch, Task Force Director. “However, the trends are looking good for sustained improvement. We are continually strengthening and refining our approach, especially through the warm handoff to treatment process. Furthermore, a number of the people we meet want to be a part of the life-saving process. They are eager to share their stories of reversing a friend or family member’s overdose, and often direct us to emerging hot spots that could use more naloxone and supportive services,” said Rusch.

A recent development at the State level also promises to drive sustained effort. On July 27, Governor J.B. Pritzker announced that Illinois Department of Human Services (IDHS) is investing nearly $13 M aimed at expanding access to this lifesaving medication. Increasing access to Naloxone is one of multiple harm reduction strategies IDHS is utilizing to support people experiencing the disease of addiction and addressing record numbers of fatalities. The access will be done through the IDHS’ Drug Overdose Prevention Program (DOPP). By registering to become a DOPP, organizations can access and distribute naloxone (Narcan nasal spray) at no charge.

In a statement regarding the new program, Representative La Shawn K. Ford (IL-8), who convened the Task Force in 2016, said “Naloxone is a miracle drug and like every household has access to a smoke detector, everyone’s household should have access to this medicine, and this investment will help make that possible.”

For more information on the program, go to ACCESS NARCAN.

For more information on the West Heroin/Opioid Task Force, contact Lee Rusch, Task Force Director, at 773-450-1567 or Luther Syas, Outreach Director at 773-230-7281 or at westsidetaskforce@yahoo.com.


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