Cook County Opioid Overdoses for 2021 Set to Surpass 2020 Numbers

Cook County Health Awarded $2.6 Million to Improve Access to Treatment for People Struggling with Opioids and Substance Use Disorders


January 25, 2021- The opioid crisis continues to have a devastating impact on the health of our communities here in Cook County and across the U.S. More than 100,000 people in the US died of a drug overdose between May 2020 and April 2021, nearly a 29% from the 12 months prior, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

The prevalence of opioid overdose in Chicago and Cook County has spiked over the last few years. From January 2018 to December 2020, there were 4,283 opioid-related deaths in Cook County with nearly 82 percent of those deaths from June 6 through December 23, 2020 showing the presence of fentanyl in their systems. The Cook County Medical Examiner’s Office recorded a total of 1840 opioid-related deaths in 2020. As of today, 1602 opioid-related deaths have been confirmed for 2021 with 717 cases still pending review. Based on past rates for pending cases, it is estimated that the final count of opioid-related deaths will surpass 2100 cases in 2021.

“Opioid addiction and deaths have permeated all segments of our society,” said Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle. “And just as this problem is extremely complex and multifaceted, so must be our approach to solving it.”

There is no single solution to prevent drug overdoses but Cook County has several programs that address this multifactorial public health challenge from different angles.

Recently, the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) awarded Cook County Health a five-year $2.6 million grant to fund opioid use treatment programs. Project REACCH-OUT: Rapid Engagement and Access at Cook County Health for Opioid Use Treatment will provide funding to enhance the treatment and recovery of individuals diagnosed with opioid use disorder (OUD) and substance use disorder (SUD) by implementing a rapid access, low-barrier and high-capacity bridge clinic in the Illinois Medical District.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has caused a great deal of stress and isolation for many people, exacerbating mental health challenges and substance use disorders,” said Israel Rocha Jr., CEO for Cook County Health. “We are committed to expanding access to substance use treatment, providing the care people need where and when they need it. This grant from SAMHSA will assist our dedicated team of health care providers to bring these much-needed services to some of the most vulnerable communities in Cook County.”

The bridge clinic be a safety-net for people struggling with OUD and SUD who are in between care settings – such as leaving jail or a hospital and in need of health care services, people returning to care, or those without an ongoing relationship with a health care provider. A combination of in-person assessments, telehealth visits, and outreach and community events will be used to engage patients.

The clinic will offer medication-assisted treatment (MAT) services for vulnerable individuals who are unable to access immediate services and are therefore at a higher risk of relapsing or overdosing after a period of sobriety. The aim is to serve 160 people during its first year and 240 each year following.

“This award will ultimately help us connect and retain more patients into MAT, improving a patient’s quality of life and reducing the risk of overdose from opioids like heroin and fentanyl,” said Dr. Jeffrey Watts, Project REACCH-OUT Director, and Psychiatrist and Addiction Medicine Physician for Cook County Health. “I am proud to be leading this experienced group of clinicians over the next five years. Each of us is passionate about ensuring persons with OUD know they have a safe, nonjudgmental space to come for treatment and support.”

WestCare Illinois, a community behavioral health service provider, will partner with Cook County Health on the bridge clinic initiative.

“WestCare Illinois is pleased to partner with Cook County Health to offer a holistic portfolio of services which includes linkages to housing, job referrals and mental health treatment at no cost to those in need,” said Stacy Munroe, Regional Vice President, WestCare Illinois. “Through this collaboration, WestCare Illinois will also be organizing outreach events aimed at decreasing opioid overdoses where we will provide Narcan training and fentanyl testing strips.”

The Cook County Department of Public Health has researched several options to curb opioid overdoses and deaths in the county, which require a new perspective on the issue of addiction.

“The stigma facing people with addictions is a public health issue. People with addictions are human beings, and we should treat them with the same compassion we do those who have any other chronic disease.” said Dr. Kiran Joshi, Co-Lead and Senior Medical Officer for the Cook County Department of Public Health.

Click here to view a recording of today’s virtual press conference.