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Cook County set to break record for opioid deaths in 2022

A few people stood bundled up near West Roosevelt and South Pulaski roads with clipboards and little black bags looking to talk to people about drug overdose and harm reduction.

Jackie Musgray was waiting for a bus nearby when one of the members of the West Side Heroin/Opioid Task Force approached. They offered her information about signs of overdose as well as its antidote, naloxone, which she said she would be comfortable using to help someone if needed.

Musgray said she has “been around here,” so she knows the signs of overdose and would know when to use the overdose-reversing naloxone.

“A lot of people out here use drugs and stuff,” Musgray told the Tribune. “If a friend can help or a stranger can help to save a life, that’s actually pretty cool. They explained how it works and it has the guide inside as well if you forget. It’s awesome if it helps save lives.”

The task force holds overdose training like the one last week, traveling around Chicago’s West Side six days a week. Members of the task force hit the streets to teach people how to use Narcan, a lifesaving nasal spray of naloxone, and the needle-and-vial equivalent as well as providing community resources such as counseling, job searching, housing, ways to secure an identification card and more.

The task force tries to find “hot spots,” or where drug activity is more common, said Gail Richardson, who works on the task force. In her three years of doing the work, she said she’s reversed four overdoses herself.

Richardson said preliminary data released by the Cook County medical examiner’s office earlier this month showing opioid deaths had gone up in 2022 increased her faith in the need for the task force overdose training.

The medical examiner’s office confirmed as of Wednesday that over 1,600 opioid-related deaths happened in 2022, but hundreds of autopsies from last year are still yet to be completed. Roughly 400 of the pending cases are expected to be opioid-related, which would put the 2022’s final number over 2,000, the medical examiner’s office reported.

The data found that while homicides in Cook County fell by more than 15%, opioid overdose deaths in 2022 are on pace to break 2021′s record of 1,936.

“Something has to be done,” Richardson said. “Let’s not just talk about it. Let’s be out here and do something about it. Put forth some effort.”

Towanda Thigpen stopped by the task force table near Roosevelt and Pulaski with her husband and said she knows a lot of people who could overdose and need naloxone, including herself. She said she wants to keep the overdose reversal medicine on her and make sure that she and her husband know how to use it.

“I want to take my life back and get better,” she said. “I’m tired.”

Thigpen started using drugs when she was 17, she said, and she realizes the way to get her life back after over 30 years of drug use is by “asking for help.”

Richardson, a nearly-lifelong West Side resident, said she is a recovering addict herself and about to celebrate 20 years of sobriety in February.

“We have to tell them our stories,” Richardson said. “I’m a recovering addict and so are some of the other people that I work with. We’re actually people that have walked the streets.”

Sherri Keyes and Michael Ferguson work with Family Guidance Centers, a partner organization of the task force that offers treatment for substance abuse. Both recovering addicts themselves, they said their backgrounds helped them get into this work and give others their lives back.

Keyes, who said she’ll be 10 years clean in February, said she has to “hold back tears” at times when signing up people for treatment on the streets because it’s hard to see someone in a position she was once familiar with, especially when the person is relatively young.

“This work, it’s rewarding, but it can be very heartbreaking at the same time,” she said. “We actually lost someone that we signed up, someone that really touched my heart. I believe he was 28. We signed him up, but maybe a couple of months later, he was found outside. He had died. So, it’s rewarding, but you have to have tough skin.”

Roger Stiff, a West Side Heroin and Opioid Task Force outreach worker, talks with Jackie Musgray about how to respond to an overdose as she waits for her bus on Jan. 6, 2023.

Ferguson is about to be four years clean on Jan 21, he said. He used heroin for about 20 years, he said, and had to have a hip replacement due to the effects of drug use.

“Lost my whole hip at 37 years old,” he said. “That was enough to scare the life out of me where I didn’t want to do it anymore.”

He said he was homeless and living on Lower Wacker for over 10 years while struggling with addiction, and now he gets to “enjoy helping people and watching them succeed” in their own addiction battle, just like he did.

“I still struggled, I just don’t use it anymore,” Ferguson said. “It’s still difficult. Some days are better than others, but any day sober is better than any day getting high. I think it’s just a waste of life. There’s one thing that you can never take back, and that’s time. That’s about the biggest regret I have. I don’t regret who I am, but you realize it just doesn’t make any sense. Why would I want to waste any more time than I’ve already lost?”

The task force interacts with about 60 people a day through the overdose training, she said. They provide everyone with the naloxone nasal spray and the vial and needle for injecting, both of which are legally allowed to be carried at all times in Illinois.

The Chicago Department of Public Health stocked over 50 libraries across the city with Narcan last year in an effort to make the lifesaving medication more accessible as overdoses became more common.

Richardson said signs of an overdose include shortness of breath, unresponsiveness, discoloration of the skin, pinpoint pupils, purplish lips and eyes rolling to the back of their head.

Anyone who sees an overdose happening should call 911 and administer naloxone if they have it on hand. Once paramedics arrive, let them know if any naloxone has been given and how much.

The nasal spray and the naloxone through a needle are equally as effective, Richardson said, but people can react to one faster than the other also depending on how much they’ve taken. Richardson said people tend to prefer the nasal spray because of issues with needles.

West Side Heroin and Opioid Task Force outreach worker Roger Stiff demonstrates how to place Narcan into a person's nose.

The nasal spray is used by plugging one nostril of the person in need’s nose while inserting the tip into the other nostril and pushing the plunger. Each Narcan comes with two doses of naloxone, and Richardson said a second dose can be given if the person doesn’t respond to the first dose in about two minutes. The second dose should be given via the nostril that didn’t take the first dose.

The needle method is naloxone injected into a fatty area of ​​the body, Richardson said. Draw the medicine from the vial, and insert the needle into the person’s upper arm or thigh. Again, if the person doesn’t respond to the first dose within two minutes, you give them another dose in a different fatty part of the arm or leg.

Richardson said to turn the person on their side after administering the medicine so that if they do respond and wake up needing to throw up, they don’t choke.

The task force also provides drug testing kits, which can tell someone if the drug they have is laced with fentanyl or something else.

If you or anyone you know is dealing with addiction, help is available 24/7 by calling 833-234-6343 and asking for MAR (medication-assisted recovery) NOW, a free and accessible hotline through the Illinois Department of Human Services that connects a person directly and immediately to a treatment provider. All Chicago residents are eligible, regardless of insurance status, documentation or ability to pay for treatment. People can also text “HELP” to 833234 to connect with the hotline.

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