Chicago area opioid overdose deaths spike amid COVID-19 pandemic

CHICAGO (WLS) -- There's been an "exponential" increase in opioid overdose deaths in the Chicago area amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

Cook County is on track to double the number of opioid-related deaths from 2019, officials said at a press conference Tuesday. While African Americans make up under 24% of the county's population, they account for half of all opioid deaths in the county this year.

"This year continues to showcase the dangerous consequences we face as a result of decades - centuries - of racial inequities," said Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle. "While much of this year has been consumed by our fight to contain COVID-19, which has disproportionately impacted our communities of color, we've had to contend with skyrocketing homicide rates which almost universally took the lives of Black and Brown people and we must face the devastating toll the opioid crisis is taking on our community as well."

Last year, the Cook County Medical Examiner's Office confirmed 605 opioid overdose deaths between January 1 and July 13. This year, that number stands at 773.

Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Ponni Arunkumar said that doesn't include the 70-80 percent of pending cases she believes will ultimately be confirmed as opioid overdoses. She estimated there are already approximately 1,200 opioid toxicity deaths in Cook County this year.

"Sixty-three percent Black and Latino, 45-55 year olds are most likely to succumb to an opioid overdose and 55-64 years olds are second most likely to die from an opioid overdose," she said.

While opioid overdose deaths have spiked, emergency rooms across Cook County Health have not reported any uptick in opioid-related visits.

"This is extremely alarming because an opioid overdose patient will likely live if given naloxone in the ambulance and opioid overdose deaths in the emergency department are a rare event," said Dr. Steve Aks, division chair of emergency medicine and toxicology at Cook County Health, . "Due to the pandemic, we asked individuals to stay at home unless it is an emergency - an overdose is an emergency."

Fighting COVID-19 means isolation, but being alone promotes substance abuse for those who are vulnerable, especially those in the early days of recovery. The isolation strategy provides a predictable conundrum according to a leading addiction services provider.

"The interaction between COVID-19, the fear of COVID-19, and substance use and addiction are pretty much the worst combination I have seen in my career without question," said Dr. Thomas Britton, President and CEO Gateway Foundation.

Source: Chicago Department of Public Health as of June 2020



"So many people are equipped with Narcan themselves. Family members and friends and emergency people and if you're not in contact with those folks the Narcan is not around so you're not going to have that sort of remedy available," said Mike Mahoney from Hazelden Betty Ford Clinic.

At Chicago's Hazelden Betty Ford clinic, the pandemic forced all treatment to go virtual, adding an obstacle for those who rely on human contact to get better.

"The remedy really is to engage with people," Mahoney said. "That's the number one antidote to substance abuse and mental health problems and that's exactly what we can't do now so it's a real problem."

In the first four months of 2020, EMS calls for opioid overdoses spiked 72% from the year before, according to Chicago Department of Public Health. At least 331 people died in that time, which is a 35% increase from 2019.

"People are scared that if they go to a treatment center they are going to develop COVID [and] if they go to outpatient, they are going to develop COVID," Britton said.

Britton's agency helps 9,000 clients per day, but since the pandemic hit in mid-March, the assistance has shifted primarily to video.

Despite moving online, there is an inevitable loss of effectiveness, and he said the drug pipeline has been altered by the pandemic.

"So the uncertainty of what you are using has increased dramatically," he said, "it has more fentanyl - 90% of the overdose deaths have fentanyl in them."

A Safe Haven, who has 25 facilities for addiction treatment in the Chicago region, stood up the first city-approved isolation center for the homeless battling addiction.

"To have people that are diagnosed with behavioral health care issues or opiate overdose issues, to a place that is actually designed to help them get on a path to recovery, jobs and permanent housing," said A Safe Haven Founder, Neli Vazquez Rowland about their efforts.

The doctor and administrator both believe opioid overdoses are only going to increase as the pandemic marches on. They say the answer is to remember services are still there to help, and people need to solicit care for the ones they love that they know have a problem.

While it is a bit more challenging to find these days, there is still help out there. Those in need can call the Statewide helpline 833-2FINDHELP to be connected to treatment resources in your area.
Copyright © 2020 WLS-TV. All Rights Reserved.