Areas of Chicago that have the highest numbers of opioid-related deaths also have a scarcity of the drug treatment centers that offer naloxone, the life-saving drug that can reverse the effects of opioid overdose.
That's according to an analysis of data from the Cook County medical examiner’s office and the Illinois Department of Human Services.
There are West Side neighborhoods that saw more than 60 opioid-related deaths in 2018, medical examiner’s records show. But those same neighborhoods have few of the 21 centers in Chicago as of 2018 that the state recognizes as “drug overdose prevention programs.” Those centers are recognized to carry naloxone and train people how to use it.
The data also show there are neighborhoods where there are far fewer opioid-related deaths, but more naloxone-equipped centers are located there. In Chicago’s Loop, for example, there were 16 opioid-related deaths in 2018, and there are five centers within a mile.
The disparity in opioid-related deaths and access to recognized centers is evident in the Austin neighborhood. There were 51 deaths attributed to opioid overdose in Austin last year. There have been 23 deaths as of Aug. 9 this year. But there’s only one recognized naloxone distribution center in Austin.
"No, there's probably not a lot of naloxone in African American communities on the West Side and South Side,” said Kathie Kane-Willis from the Chicago Urban League. “However, I do think there's a big push to try and change that."
One group making that push is the Chicago Recovering Communities Coalition (CRCC), the sole state-recognized drug overdose prevention program in Austin. On a recent Tuesday morning, 60-year-old Larry Street was at the CRCC, 501 N. Central Ave., picking up naloxone for a friend.
“I really wasn’t familiar with it. I heard about it, but I know it’s here and I come get it,” said Street, who lives upstairs at the building.
How to get naloxone
Naloxone works by blocking opioids such as heroin, morphine and some painkillers from binding to the brain. It can be an injection or a nasal spray. If administered quickly by a friend or emergency responder to someone during an overdose, the drug can reverse the effects of the opioid within minutes.
The CRCC started giving out naloxone about two years ago. It also provides training on how to administer the drug, and counseling services for people with substance abuse disorders.
The shortage of state-recognized locations offering naloxone in and near Austin “is somewhat discouraging,” said Dora Wright, the co-founder of CRCC. She was raised in the neighborhood and said the lack of resources for drug users prompted her to start the organization there.
The address of a naloxone-equipped center recognized by the state doesn’t tell the complete story, said Dani Kirby of the Illinois Department of Human Services.
“Organizations may be located in one area and serve many other areas,” Kirby said. “So their address may be in the Loop, but that doesn’t mean that’s the only area that they serve.”
And centers recognized by the state aren’t the only places where naloxone is supplied. The drug can be available at hospitals, and police and fire stations. Some cities offer naloxone at public libraries, but currently that’s not the case in Chicago.
Kirby said the state is trying to grow access to the drug. “This is not something we’re trying to limit by any means,” she said.
She said an advantage of the state-recognized centers is that they can supply naloxone and train people how to properly administer it to save a life.
“Those programs are able to work with first responders like, maybe, law enforcement, fire departments,” Kirby said. “They also work with non-traditional first responders — if you think of a bystander, like a friend or family member of someone who uses opioids.”
Another group in the city working to address the disparity in opioid-related deaths and naloxone availability is the Chicago Recovery Alliance, which also is recognized by the state. It travels to neighborhoods where the need for naloxone is high. Every day, a couple volunteers pile into a silver van loaded with naloxone kits and clean injection tools, and travel across Chicago.
“People who use drugs are central to getting naloxone into the nooks and crannies of networks where it’s needed,” said Maya Doe-Simkins, the director of communications with the group.
Kirby said that on-the-ground intel is critical to matching naloxone supply with demand. “We really do need more coverage in terms of where the naloxone is located, where people can get to it and where it can get out from,” Kirby said.
Some of that coverage comes from people such as Solomon Johnson, who goes to the CRCC in Austin every week to get naloxone supplies.
“I used it when a guy was on the street,” Johnson said. “He was slumped over. I think he was lying on a bench and he was foaming at the mouth. So I ended up running upstairs, grabbing the kit. He was fine after 30, 40 minutes. It was all good.”
Last week, Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s office launched an initiative on the West Side to address the lack of naloxone access. Officials said they gave out about naloxone 300 kits.
Blair Paddock is a news intern for WBEZ. Follow them @blairpaddock.