Editorial: DuPage keeps pressure on, even as opioid crisis deepens
The opioid crisis has steadily deepened over the years and has only been accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
But, in DuPage County in particular, where the coroner first threw down a gauntlet against the problem eight years ago, the worsening crisis is not for officials' lack of trying -- nor are they ready to give up.
Cook, Lake, DuPage, Kane and McHenry counties all saw a spike in overdose deaths in 2020 compared to the previous year. DuPage had a record 112 opioid overdose deaths last year.
"We are not turning this ship around," DuPage County Coroner Richard Jorgensen said. "It is continuing to get worse."
DuPage leaders have been trying to address the problem since 2013 when Jorgensen first raised the alarm about overdose deaths. That year, county board members set aside $100,000 for a public education campaign to raise awareness about the dangers of heroin and other drugs. The board has provided funding to combat the opioid crisis every year since.
The county also started the DuPage Narcan Program, which trains first responders on how to administer the opiate overdose reversal drug Narcan.
Another part of the county's multitiered approach was to form its Heroin/Opioid Prevention and Education (HOPE) Taskforce in 2018. The interagency group, which includes prosecutors, law enforcement officials and other specialists, recommends actionable policies, initiatives and programs.
However, the fight against opioid abuse has become increasingly complex, especially with the introduction of fentanyl and other synthetic opioids. The COVID-19 pandemic, meanwhile, exacerbated the opioid crisis.
"In many ways, this pandemic was a perfect storm for people who are already struggling and, unfortunately, has left many without the resources to access treatment, recovery and support," said Karen Ayala, executive director of the DuPage County Health Department.
DuPage officials have responded by seeking new and innovative proposals.
"This issue is constantly evolving, and we need to make sure we're putting our best foot forward with new ideas," said county board member Greg Hart, the HOPE Taskforce co-chairman.
On July 23, the task force awarded grants totaling $125,000 to four agencies and programs addressing the opioid crisis.
"The COVID pandemic has consumed our lives and our attention for the last 18 months," county board Chairman Dan Cronin said. "But our fight against the heroin and opioid epidemic has never wavered."
So while the number of opioid-related deaths remains alarming, DuPage officials continue to lead the way in trying to reverse the trend.