Cook County to fight opioid deaths by giving anti-overdose medication to police and other first responders

Last year, Cook County saw 1,277 opioid deaths, making it the “deadliest year for opioid overdoses the county had ever seen — until now,” said Dr. Ponni Arunkumar, the county’s medical examiner.

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Dr. Ponni Arunkumar, chief medical examiner of Cook County, left, and Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, right, at a July news conference.

Dr. Ponni Arunkumar, chief medical examiner of Cook County, left, and Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, right, at a July news conference.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times file

Calling it a “critical moment” in the opioid crisis, Cook County officials unveiled a plan Wednesday to supply suburban police and other agencies with medication to reverse overdoses — to keep users out of hospital emergency rooms or jail.

The “deflection initiative” is designed to curb a dramatic spike in overdoses by distributing naloxone to community partners and 12 law enforcement agencies in “priority areas,” Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle said in a virtual news conference.

The initiative was influenced by a rise in opioid-related deaths in 2020. Its goal is to connect people to treatment rather than incarceration.

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Preckwinkle said the county is finishing out what is expected to be its second consecutive year of significant opioid overdose cases.

Last year the county saw 1,277 opioid deaths, making it the “deadliest year for opioid overdoses the county had ever seen — until now,” Dr. Ponni Arunkumar, the county’s medical examiner, said.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has overshadowed the opioid crisis this year, but this crisis deserves our attention,” Arunkumar said. “It has quietly cut down so many lives and left families devastated in its wake.”

Dr. Ponni Arunkumar, Cook County’s chief medical examiner, in 2017.

Dr. Ponni Arunkumar, Cook County’s chief medical examiner, in 2017.

Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times file

Arunkumar said the county is on track to exceed 2,000 opioid deaths this year after seeing a 50% increase week over week in its opioid deaths this year over last year.

“We’re in a very bad place,” Preckwinkle said. “So, we’re at a critical moment, I think that’s the best thing to say.”

Jac Charlier, the executive director of Treatment Alternatives for Safe Communities, said deflection is a “third option” for police and other first responders when they encounter someone who’s at high risk of overdose, or who has overdosed or who’s in need of substance use disorder treatment.

Instead of arresting that person, or “overburdening” our emergency rooms, deflection acts as a “warm handoff to treatment to case management or other supportive community resources,” Charlier said.

Police departments in Harvey, Markham and Maywood participated in a pilot program for the initiative and, as of Wednesday, the county’s department of public health and its partners have trained 78 officers and distributed 169 naloxone kits, officials said.

Naloxone is approved by the Food and Drug Administration to rapidly but temporarily reverse opioid overdoses, according to the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

Charlier said the other police departments that will take part in the initiative will be selected based on data that the county has provided and he and other county officials will work to select departments and communities that are “experiencing the highest rates of opioid overdose and overdose death.”

The county has enough funding to distribute 2,500 kits by the end of September 2021 and plans to train about 1,900 officers to administer those kits.

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