Pandemic Causing Rise in Opioid Overdose

By: Ashmar Mandou

Lawndale News Chicago's Bilingual Newspaper - HealthAccording to a health alert issued by the Chicago Department of Public Health earlier this month, there is a significant rise in opioid deaths compared to last year. The alert states there have been over 400 opioid-related deaths in Chicago, compared to just over 300 in January to May of last year. In May 2020 alone, there were 86 opioid-related deaths in Chicago, of which 18.6 percent identified as Latino, compared to only two deaths last month.

These alarming numbers prompted Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, Cook County Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Ponni Arunkumar, and physicians from Cook County Health to address the increase in opioid overdose deaths.

“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. But that only tells part of the story. The Office is still awaiting results of 580 pending cases. According to Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Ponni Arunkumar, 70 – 80 percent of those cases will be confirmed as opioid overdoses. This means that there are already approximately 1,200 opioid toxicity deaths in Cook County this year.

In 2019, the Medical Examiner’s Office confirmed a total of 1,267 opioid overdose deaths. In 2018, the Office confirmed 1,148. The victims are overwhelmingly people of color. Of the 773 cases confirmed this year, 63 percent are Black or Latino. Forty-five to 54-year-olds are most likely to succumb to an opioid overdose, and 55- to 64-year-olds are second most likely to die from an opioid overdose. These age groups have consistently been the most vulnerable to opioid deaths over the past few years.

“Our Office is used to dealing with death, but we will never get used to the tragedy that each death represents,” said Arunkumar. “While we concentrate on our mission to establish the cause and manner of death for the cases that fall under our jurisdiction, we do not accept that they had to occur. These deaths are preventable, and we have a responsibility to do all we can to stop as many as we can.”

One program that has gotten a more than 20 percent increase in participation is the medication assisted treatment program (MAT) at Cook County Health. MAT is a combination of FDA-approved medication and behavioral health support and considered the gold standard approach to substance use disorders treatment according to Dr. Juleigh Nowinski Konchak, MAT physician lead at Cook County Health. She says Cook County Health has adapted how it is caring for patients with substance abuse disorders during the pandemic.

Lawndale News Chicago's Bilingual Newspaper - Health

Lawndale News Chicago's Bilingual Newspaper - Health

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