Malcolm X College offers new program to battle opioid problem

CHICAGO (WLS) -- Opioid-related overdose deaths soared to a record 93,000 in 2020. The COVID-19 pandemic is being blamed in part for the 29% increase.

The ABC7 I-Team reported earlier this year that overdose deaths in Cook County alone hit a new high in 2020, jumping about 41%.

Inspired by his own family, a local man is taking part in a new City Colleges program created to battle the drug issue.

"It's really devastating to see people fall from that," said Luis Ramirez. He hopes to make a difference after learning firsthand the real cost of the opioid crisis when his older brother, Carlos Murillo, died of a heroin overdose.

"It was a difficult thing," Ramirez said. "We tried our best to give him an opportunity, a second chance."

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As overdose deaths in the United States surge to a new high, the 27-year-old South Sider is vowing to fight back against the addiction that claimed his brother's life by becoming a community health worker. It's happening through the Opiod Impacted Family Support Program offered by Malcolm X. College, one of Chicago's City Colleges.

"We certainly think it will become the largest public health crisis as the pandemic subsides," said Dr. Elizabeth Gmitter, the school's executive director of college initiatives and projects.

She said the opioid crisis has not only been hidden by the pandemic, but made worse.

"Because social isolation, no easy access to treatment for people with addictions or sobriety issues, that's really tough," she explained.

Using a $2.1 million dollar grant from federal government and the help of several addiction medicine and health care partners, the college started the four-year initiative which seeks to help neighborhoods most affected by opioid and substance use disorders.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, in 2020, there were roughly 93,000 overdose-related deaths in the US. That's a 29% increase over 2019 when there were 72,151 opioid-related deaths. It's estimated that some 20 million people a year suffer from an opioid-use disorder.

The grant will pay for students' tuition, fees and book costs, and will provide a stipend up to $7,500 for the two-phase training course. Phase one is a one-semester certificate program to become a community health worker.

"So the fact that we have a program that addressees the communal need that our students can be a part of I think rings true to our mission to be able to provide a service and opportunities for students in the community to make the community have better health outcomes," said Roy Walker III, dean of health sciences and career programs at Malcolm X College.

The pilot program had 20 students and has steadily grown from there. Classes are now ongoing. Registration will close August 26.
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