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More Black, Latino Chicagoans Are Dying Of Heroin, Fentanyl Overdoses. A State Plan Will Expand Strategies To Tackle The Crisis

The plan will boost programs proven to work, like the West Side Heroin and Opioid Task Force, which has taught more than 6,000 people how to use Narcan to reverse potentially deadly overdoses.

Narcan being handed out by the West Side Opioid and Heroin Task Force at an overdose hotspot at Cicero and Madison.
Keerti Gopal/Block Club Chicago
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WEST GARFIELD PARK — The state is doubling down on efforts to tackle the opioid crisis, which has hit communities of color the hardest.

The state is launching the Illinois Overdose Action Plan to bolster initiatives already proven to work, including efforts on the West Side, which is the epicenter of the crisis in Illinois, Gov. JB Pritzker said at a news conference Monday.

That’d mean a boost to programs like the West Side Heroin and Opioid Task Force, which coordinates resources to address overdoses in West Side neighborhoods. The task force has led overdose prevention efforts, including a Narcan training and distribution program that has taught more than 6,000 people in the area how to use the medication to reverse potentially deadly overdoses.

The state’s equity-focused plan will expand access to harm-reduction tools, including Narcan, and emphasize programs that address the social issues that lead to addiction, like behavioral health issues and poverty, Pritzker said.

A racial equity-focused approach is essential for addressing the opioid crisis since even when overdoses are on the decline overall, “deaths specifically in Black and Latino communities continue to rise,” Pritzker said. The coronavirus pandemic worsened the opioid epidemic, with opioid deaths skyrocketing in 2020 and remaining high in 2021.

RELATED: Opioid-Related Deaths Still High After A Brutal 2020 — And The West Side Remains The Epicenter Of The Crisis

“We’ve recognized how connected these problems really are — from homelessness to hunger to disease to the struggles of getting and keeping a job,” Pritzker said. “We strive to address this in everything from rental assistance programs to food and nutrition access to the overdose action plan that we present today.”

Organizations on the task force have partnered to launch initiatives like the Westside Community Triage and Wellness Center, a clinic “with the primary goal of keeping people out of Cook County Jail and reducing unnecessary psychiatric hospitalizations for individuals with serious mental illness and substance use disorders,” said Dr. Rashad Saafir, director of the triage center and CEO of the Bobby E. Wright Comprehensive Behavioral Health Center.

The plan builds upon Pritzker’s 2020 executive order that directed agencies to prioritize racial equity in their response to the opioid crisis. This approach enabled the Westside Community Triage and Wellness Center to add services like street outreach, trauma-informed therapy and mobile crisis intervention.

A grant awarded last year from the Department of Human Services also allowed the Westside Community Triage Center to offer 24/7 services so residents could have access to a mental health center and crisis resources at any time. Other grantees in the area, including the I Am Able Center for Family Development and Habilitative Systems Inc., have joined to create a collaborative mental health network designed to be a safety net offering care options to people experiencing a crisis.

The state also established the role of chief behavioral health officer, which will be filled by David T. Jones. Jones will lead the efforts to streamline the behavioral health system, with the office collaborating with state agencies to develop a whole-of-government approach to preventing overdoses and improving access to addiction treatment. Jones previously led the substance use and prevention division in the state’s Department of Human Services.

“Harm reduction and connecting treatments … with social determinants of health, such as employment and housing, will be incorporated into our design,” Jones said.

Some elements of the plan are already in motion. The state’s mobile medication-assisted recovery program sends outreach that bring access to clinicians and prescriptions for medications that can help them prevent withdrawal and overcome addictions. The state is working with sheriffs on programs to reduce recidivism and prevent overdoses among people returning from incarceration, which is an especially vulnerable group.

“We’re working to end the racial disparities that come from historical institutional failures. Recovery belongs in all our communities but accessibility is key to getting people on the road to success,” Pritzker said.

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