Opioid-related deaths in Chicago’s West and Northwest sides are skyrocketing because of an influx of fentanyl and a lack of social services due to the COVID-19 pandemic, according to new data.
There were 573 opioid-related deaths in Chicago from January to June 2020, with the highest concentration of incidents on the West and Northwest sides, according to the Chicago Department of Public Health’s Mid-Year Chicago Opioid Update. The document shows a 55% increase in opioid-related deaths and a 56.4% increase in deaths involving fentanyl compared to the same period in 2019.
The increase in opioid-related incidents has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has limited or halted most of Chicago’s outreach, education, and intervention services aimed at helping opioid users. Many of the city’s outreach services closed during the height of the pandemic and have only reopened at partial capacity, including the Community Outreach Intervention Project, commonly referred to as COIP, one of the largest service providers on the Northwest Side.
The four neighborhoods with the most opioid-related deaths and EMS responses — Humboldt Park, Austin, West Garfield Park and East Garfield Park — are on Chicago’s West and Northwest sides.
Logan Square had a significantly lower number of opioid-related deaths and EMS responses from January to June 2020, according to the Mid-Year Chicago Opioid Update. But Logan Square cases may be far higher than they seem, according to COIP Case Manager Jose Alvarez, as the Chicago Department of Public Health statistics mark where incidents occur, not where users live.
Since an influx of fentanyl arrived in Chicago from Mexico and China, many Logan Square users have gone to Humboldt Park to buy and use opiates, Alvarez said. Thus, if they died or required emergency medical services in Humboldt Park, their incidents were marked as Humboldt Park, not Logan Square.
Humboldt Park is the neighborhood with the most opioid-related EMS responses and second-most opioid-related deaths in Chicago, per the report. The neighborhood is a hotspot for the recently imported fentanyl, attracting users from across the city.
“There’s a lot of fentanyl being distributed in the area,” said Alvarez.
Alvarez works at COIP’s Humboldt Park office, which closed suddenly in March for three months in efforts to combat the pandemic. Many COIP clients were confused after the closure because COIP workers and management, who were in crisis mode because of COVID-19, had no time to warn them of the upcoming closure, he said.
COIP’s clients didn’t immediately realize they had no access to the services they relied on. “They kept coming to the field station, and they saw that it was closed, and eventually, they stopped coming,” he said.
For those three months, COIP offered no services. With the closure, COIP lost many of its clients.
“When we came back, a lot of our clients weren’t around anymore,” said Alvarez. “And by the time we came back, many of our people overdosed.”
According to Alvarez, around 30 people would arrive at COIP’s Humboldt Park office every day before the pandemic to exchange dirty needles for clean ones, an essential service for curbing transmittable diseases. Now, COIP sees 10 people across all its services on a good day, even though the need is as high as ever.
Social distancing requirements have hampered COIP’s efforts since it reopened. Case managers can’t welcome clients in enclosed areas, but they can’t access computer databases or do paperwork outside.
COIP still hasn’t restarted its HIV or hepatitis C programs that it did before the pandemic, either, but Alvarez remains persistent in his efforts.
“It’s harder to deal during the pandemic, and it’s harder to do what I have to do in my job, but I do not deny them their social services,” he said. “I do not let them go without them having some help.”
According to the Mid-Year Chicago Opioid Update, Non-Latinx Black individuals accounted for 59.3% of the opioid-related deaths in Chicago from January to June 2020. In the same period, non-Latinx white individuals accounted for 26.4%; Latinx individuals accounted for 12.7%. 76.4% of individuals were men; 23.6% were female.
The update further states that there were 7,301 opioid-related EMS responses citywide from January to June 2020, a 60% increase in opioid-related EMS responses from the same period in 2019.
The people most frequently involved in opioid-related deaths are 45-54-year-olds. There were 157 deaths among people in this age group from January to June.
As the opioid epidemic and COVID-19 pandemic rage on, COIP workers will continue searching for ways to accommodate clients battling addiction as they ensure their safety against COVID-19.
Featured image: Camilo Jimenez/Unsplash