Too many people are dying from opioid overdoses. Prevention sites would save lives.

Illinois are on track for another record-breaking year of opioid overdose deaths, most of which occur on Chicago’s West Side. Prevention sites, commonly known as ‘safe injection sites,’ keep people alive and connect them to drug abuse treatment.

SHARE Too many people are dying from opioid overdoses. Prevention sites would save lives.
A safe site for drug users has been set up in a vacant lot at Pulaski Road and Van Buren Street on the West Side. It’s a joint effort by the University of Illinois-Chicago’s Community Outreach and Intervention Projects program and the West Side Heroin Opioid Task Force. 

This safe site for drug users was set up in a vacant lot at Pulaski Road and Van Buren Street on the West Side. It’s a joint effort by the University of Illinois-Chicago and the West Side Heroin Opioid Task Force.

Brian Rich/Sun-Times

If you heard an ambulance last night, there’s a good chance it was taking a person with an opioid overdose to a hospital. Over 12,000 emergency medical system calls related to opioid overdoses were logged statewide in 2020-2021, which is 34 calls a day, on average, a 60% increase from 2019. And there were 3,013 overdose deaths in Illinois in 2021, a 35% increase from 2019. The current numbers for 2022 show that we’ll reach, if not surpass, the number of deaths in 2021.

Most of those calls and deaths came from Chicago’s West Side.

The heavy human toll of opioid use disorders on our communities, particularly communities of color, cannot be denied: Two-thirds of overdose deaths and opioid-related EMS calls were for African American Chicagoans.

As a psychiatric/substance use care provider for over 20 years, and a care provider on the West Side since COVID-19, I can attest to the urgent need for services that can be provided by House Bill 2 (formerly HB 110), the Overdose Prevention Site Pilot Act. (The bill is sponsored by my co-author.)

The need for such safe sites — commonly known as safe injection sites, a misnomer since many of those who use drugs in Chicagoland do so by smoking, not injection — is acute. State leaders have the opportunity in the upcoming legislative session to save thousands of lives with this bill. There is no time to waste.

Connection to treatment

An Overdose Prevention Site (OPS) is a hygienic, welcoming space where people can safely use drugs under the supervision of peer recovery staff and health care personnel. The main goals are to permit trained personnel to reverse any overdoses, should they occur, and to engage people in the care they need. Educating clients on harm reduction and providing clean supplies reduces illness or infection. Offering life-saving linkages to treatment and social services make OPS’s extensions of existing harm-reduction services. 

If they access health services at all, people who use drugs often receive fragmented care. An OPS provides care and connection to treatment, in addition to reducing overdose deaths, public drug use, and syringe litter in parks, with no increases in crime. Starting treatment from an OPS increases the likelihood of staying in treatment by 60% and provides ongoing, comprehensive health and wellness support. 

HB2 has the support of state and local public health officials; a number of Chicago-area legislators; Rush Medical Center’s CEO and deans of medicine and nursing; and other health care and medical associations. Chicago’s City Council passed a resolution in January urging passage of the bill.

Our team has been working with the OPS team in New York, the first active site in the U.S., and learning from the global experience; nearly 200 OPS’s have been operating in 14 countries, some for over 30 years. Practitioners in New York, where an OPS opened in December 2021, have served 2,400 patients and reversed over 603 overdoses, with only 12 calls for EMS support and zero deaths.

Before its OPS opened, New York experienced 30 overdose deaths per 100,000 people; Chicago is comparable, at 28 overdose deaths per 100,000. We believe we can achieve comparable savings in lives and monetary costs. 

Other cities pursuing OPS sites include San Francisco and Atlanta, where Brown University epidemiologist Brandon Marshall estimated that “one site in Atlanta could save the city about $3.6 million annually in EMS rides, ED [emergency department] visits, and hospitalizations.” Marshall and others have shown that every $1 spent on an OPS saves $2.33 in the community. The math showing substantial savings is obvious: The average EMS ride in Chicago costs $2,946; with 34 rides a day for overdoses, transport costs alone can reach $90,000 per day.

Lives are saved as well, since OPS health care providers meet patients we otherwise might not encounter. People who use drugs stay alive, while we work to build trust and engage people in treatment.

You may hear sirens again tonight as ambulances ferry people in overdose crises to hospitals for emergency care. An OPS in Chicago will save both money and lives, while combatting the damaging stigma of drug use. 

Tanya Sorrell, Ph.D., is associate professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Rush University College of Medicine and the director of Rush Substance Use Disorder Center of Excellence. She is a Public Voices Fellow of the OpEd Project.

State Rep. La Shawn Ford represents the 8th District.

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The views and opinions expressed by contributors are their own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Chicago Sun-Times or any of its affiliates.

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