Opioid Checkers. Photo Credit: AV Benford
Opioid Checkers. Photo Credit: AV Benford

With Chicago Department of Public Health guidance, South Side stakeholders—from politicians to substance abuse disorder treatment professionals—are in the process of uniting formally as the South Side Opioid and Heroin Task Force later this year to combat rampant opioid use. The task force’s objective will be to reduce opioid-related overdoses and addiction on the South Side through education, crisis mitigation and training.

The task force’s formation comes as 573 people in Chicago died from opioid-related overdoses in the first six months of 2020, marking a 54.9 percent increase in fatal overdoses from the first six months of 2019, according to the Chicago Department of Public Health’s Mid-Year Chicago Opioid Update. 59.3 percent, or 340 of the 573 people who passed away from opioid-related overdoses, were Black. The most affected areas of Chicago are the West and South sides, the update states. Black residents make up nearly thirty percent of the city’s population, according to the U.S. Census. According to the update, 82.2 percent of the opioid-related fatal overdoses included fentanyl, a synthetic opioid that the CDC states is 50 to 100 times stronger than morphine.

Members of the task force say they want to increase awareness of the opioid epidemic in the South Side communities. “The main thing that we want to do is educate, I think. We need to educate the community, not only the substance user but the family member,” said Deborah Parnell, the vice president of clinical services at Human Resources Development Institute, Inc. (HDRI), a behavioral health and human service center headquartered in Roseland. Its formation will likely be announced by the end of December. “We are supposed to be presenting a media blast or some kind of formal introduction of the task force before the end of this calendar year,” Parnell said. 

The task force began having monthly meetings in June, slowly incorporating South Side stakeholders that now include representatives from HRDI, Metropolitan Family Services, Drexel Counseling Center, Advocate Health Care, the University of Chicago Medical Center, the Chicago Department of Public Health, the Illinois State Senate and other South Side organizations, Parnell said.

Beyond educating the community, the task force will duplicate the five goals of the West Side Heroin and Opioid Task Force, which began fighting the West Side of Chicago’s opioid crisis in 2016, Parnell said. The West Side Heroin and Opioid Task Force’s goals are to raise awareness, increase supportive services, increase overdose response, integrate mental health and substance abuse disorder treatment, and implement a coordinated effort for better outcomes, states a task force document. “One of the main focuses is to confront the amount of overdoses, but also to bring together organizations in a more concerted way to address a myriad of issues around opioids,” said Lee Rusch, the director of the West Side Heroin and Opioid Task Force. As of June 30, the task force partnered with members from fifty-five agencies to achieve its goals, including Healthcare Alternative Systems, Lurie Children’s Hospital, Chicago Recovering Communities Coalition, and Life Changing Community Outreach, a task force annual report states.

The West Side Heroin and Opioid Task Force has started several initiatives to achieve its goals, including Block by Block, which aims to train at least two members on each block to administer naloxone, a medication that rapidly reverses opioid overdoses, according to the task force overview. Task force members have trained over 2,000 people who frequent areas where opioids are commonly sold and used to use naloxone and provided them with the medication, according to the report. In one instance, task force members went to a tent city on the West Side and provided the residents with naloxone training, naloxone, information on treatment, and hygiene supplies, the annual report states.

Parnell mentioned the South Side task force’s intention to expand naloxone training and distribution by duplicating the West Side’s Block by Block program. She said the task force will promote naloxone outside of the Block by Block program, too. “We talked about having a vending machine for naloxone; of course, you don’t have to pay for it,” Parnell said. The vending machine would be in a twenty-four-hour triage center and other high need areas, Parnell added. The task force will also work toward increasing awareness of methadone and Suboxone treatment centers on the South Side among people who use drugs and the community-at-large, Parnell said. Suboxone is the brand name for a drug used to treat people addicted to opioids.

The task force’s formation might have been quicker in a world without COVID-19, Parnell said. Still, the task force is gathering prominent community members, including State Senator Mattie Hunter, Parnell said. Hunter has served in the Senate since 2003 and has worked as an alcohol and drug counselor in Illinois since 1982. Hunter lives in Washington Park, where she has seen opioid-related death and EMS-response rates increase. “They’re skyrocketing, and not enough services are being offered to these people on the South Side,” Hunter said. “And what we’re trying to do is save lives, and so we got to hurry to put a handle on this thing before we lose too many people.”

Hunter will act as the figurehead of the task force, welcoming participants to meetings and assuring task force stakeholders that the Illinois state is involved. Hunter also hopes to find funding through the Illinois Department of Human Services’ Substance Use Prevention and Recovery initiative, she said. “We hope to bring in the state with their resources to put on the South Side to improve the quality of life of opioid-addicted persons,” Hunter said. Hunter also said she hopes the task force will mirror the West Side Heroin and Opioid Task Force’s success, adding that West Side task force leaders will help guide the forming South Side Opioid and Heroin Task Force. Hunter also clarified that the South Side task force will face unique challenges that it must assess before moving forward. “We need to conduct a needs assessment as well. And once you put together that needs assessment, that’s gonna tell your whole story as to what’s really going on out there.” Hunter emphasized that the needs assessment is necessary on a macro and micro level. “An addicted person might come into a treatment program, and you don’t know if it’s an addiction problem or it’s a mental health problem,” she said. “So then you have to conduct a complete assessment to see which one comes first, so that way, you can start treating that one first.”

Cris Johnson, the overdose prevention program manager at Chicago Recovery Alliance (CRA), an outreach organization that provides naloxone, safe injecting equipment, overdose training, harm reduction counseling, and other services throughout Chicago, said he approves of the task force’s intention. “Providing folks with naloxone and information about how it works and harm reduction methods to partake in whatever folks are going to partake in safely is something that I definitely support.” Johnson expressed other doubts, though. “How do we not duplicate the work and still support the community and reduce overdose deaths?” Johnson mentioned that CRA bought four vending machines already to distribute naloxone in some of its partner agencies’ offices, some of which are on the South Side.

“The more information that’s out there, the better,” Johnson said. “But are we targeting the same communities, and are we missing any communities?” Johnson pointed toward a solution to avoid duplicating efforts in some communities while ignoring others. “I just think communication is key.” Johnson said CRA isn’t currently a part of the South or West Side task forces, but clarified that it intends to join both.

Lee Rusch, the director of the West Side Heroin and Opioid Taskforce, said he strongly recommends that the South Side Opioid and Heroin Task Force find a leader who is wholly dedicated to the task force to avoid conflicts of interest, citing that social service organizations are businesses, too. “You really have to step that person aside from touting the organization. It’s really about promoting the task force,” Rusch said.

Joel Johnson, the president at HRDI, said business is not the priority of the task force. “We’re not concerned about the revenue or the business or the transaction as long as they get someplace that will save their lives,” Johnson said. “Whether they find a home at HRDI for their treatment needs or at Family Guidance, that’s [the] patient choice that we fully embrace.” Instead, Johnson is more focused on the credibility of health care providers. “Our bigger concern is that every provider is credible and has the capacity to appropriately and humanely treat the population in need,” Johnson said.

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Alex Shur is a freelance journalist and social justice and investigative journalism student at Northwestern University. He last wrote about a program for incarcerated mothers struggling with drug addiction for the Weekly. 

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