A Narcan kit with injectable Nalaxone. Credit: Provided: erocsid

AUSTIN — The West Side of Chicago accounts for 23 percent of all opioid hospitalizations across the state, but until recently there was only one place in the neighborhood where residents could get trained to use a lifesaving medication.

Now, thanks to the West Side Opioid and Heroin Task Force convened by State Rep. La Shawn Ford, the community at large is being given more access to Naloxone, the lifesaving drug used to treat opioid overdoses.

The Task Force combines the strength and expertise of neighborhood partners who are already working to minimize substance abuse and end opioid deaths on the West Side, including Prevention Partnership inc., the Chicago Recovering Communities Coalition and Life Changing Community Outreach.

Now they’re working together to spread the word about the opioid crisis on the West Side and to empower residents to help friends, neighbors and family members who are experiencing an opioid overdose by administering a dose of Naloxone, commonly known as Narcan.

Narcan is an opioid antagonist that can reverse the effects of an overdose within seconds by removing the drugs from the opioid receptors in the brain. The drug comes in an easy-to-use nasal spray and in an injectable form.

The West Side is considered to be the part of Chicago most heavily impacted by the opioid epidemic. A 2016 report conducted by the Task Force with the Illinois Consortium on Drug Policy at Roosevelt University found the West Side accounted for 23 percent of all opioid hospitalizations across the entire state.

But until recently, the Chicago Recovering Communities Coalition was the only drug prevention program in Austin. That means there was only one place in the city’s largest neighborhood where residents could get trained to use Narcan.

“We’re really just looking at making sure that it isn’t just agency people or people who are paid to do this work, but there are actual residents that become part of that lifesaving force,” said Lee Rusch, executive director of the taskforce.

Since the use of Narcan requires minimal training, treatment can be administered even before an ambulance arrives or a person who has overdosed can get to the hospital.

When someone overdoses on morphine, heroin or fentanyl, the opioids cause the nervous system to slow down. The person who is overdosing need to get treatment as soon as possible, and every second counts.

“When they’re overdosing they stop breathing, and they’re not getting oxygen to the brain. Your brain starts being affected and you can die. You also don’t know how long that person has been out when you came upon them,” Rusch said.

Aside from improving Narcan access, the taskforce is working on a full spectrum of issues related to opioids, including work on improving public policy and access to treatment for substance use disorder. Rusch said their first priority is to stop the overdose deaths, especially since anybody can be trained to reverse an overdose with Narcan.

The Task Force is supporting the Narcan trainings with the help of a $350,000 state grant secured by Ford in August.

Life Changing Community Outreach is one of the neighborhood organizations that is now part of the drug treatment and prevention program. On the third Saturday of each month, the organization offers a 90-minute training to any resident who wishes to be able to effectively administer Narcan.

At the end of the session, residents walk away with a kit that includes two doses of the medication. 

“The main goal is to get as many as possible trained because it is something that is serious. … We need to promote Narcan, that there’s something out there that can save a life,” said Yvette McKinnie, the founder of Life Saving Community Outreach.

The training sessions teach residents what Naloxone is and how it works, how to identify the signs and symptoms when a person is overdosing, how to use Narcan to save their life, and how to support an overdose victim after administering the drug until help arrives.

McKinnie said the Task Force is doing outreach to get as many different members of the community involved as possible so people are aware there are resources available for preventing overdoses.

“We want it so spread like wildflowers where the word is out there,” McKinnie said. “So then the churches can know what the task force is doing so they could be a part of it and get their people trained, as well as some of the businesses.”

Pascal Sabino is a Report for America corps member covering Austin, North Lawndale and Garfield Park for Block Club Chicago.

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