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Outreach and treatments are attributed for Chicago's decline in overdoses

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

Overdose deaths from opioids such as heroin, prescription drugs and fentanyl continue to climb at alarming rates. But while most of the country faces a worsening epidemic, officials in Chicago say opioid-related deaths and overdoses have declined there during the first half of this year. Here's NPR's Cheryl Corley.

CHERYL CORLEY, BYLINE: As the COVID-19 epidemic began ravaging communities last year, the opioid crisis heightened. Chicago Public Health Commissioner Allison Arwady says that's in part because users were often alone, isolated, with no one to offer help or call for it if there was trouble. It's different now.

ALLISON ARWADY: We think people are using drugs with others, a harm reduction technique that we recommend. And we're seeing this resurgence of a lot of the outreach and treatment capabilities.

CORLEY: One of those outreach groups is the Chicago Recovery Alliance. Once a week, it parks a truck under Chicago's elevated train tracks in a West Side neighborhood near an expressway dubbed the Heroin Highway.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Hey, brother. What you need?

CORLEY: Cheryl Hull, the deputy director of the alliance, and a colleague are handing out supplies to people so they can use drugs safely. It's a diverse crowd, people in their 20s through their 50s, and from all parts of the city and suburbs. A couple of people are in wheelchairs.

CHERYL HULL: Do you need some overdose?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Yeah.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Narcan spray.

CORLEY: Narcan is a brand name for naloxone, the medicine that can rapidly reverse an opioid overdose. Hull says she's heard less about overdoses this year. But plenty of people lining up here, like Joe Edwards (ph), have a story to tell.

JOE EDWARDS: Yeah, one of my friends just got buried last week. He was on the couch. They thought he was sleep, but he was dead.

CORLEY: Do you think it was the fentanyl that did it?

EDWARDS: Had to be.

CORLEY: Chicago health officials say the number of opioid overdoses in 2020 was the highest ever, and 90% involved fentanyl. During the first half of this year, non-fatal overdoses in Chicago dropped nearly 25%. For fatal overdoses, it was nearly 20% lower. Although those numbers are changing as the county medical examiner confirms pending cases, Health Commissioner Arwady says it's encouraging.

ARWADY: There's a whole host of things that we've been trying here. It's good to see the numbers certainly down from where they were last year.

CORLEY: The big test here and elsewhere is fighting the scourge of fentanyl. Last month, the Drug Enforcement Agency (ph) said during two months of drug raids, it seized enough fentanyl to kill hundreds of thousands of Americans. One of the biggest factors in fighting overdoses remains the recovery medicine naloxone. That's why Monica Pope (ph) is at the Chicago Recovery Alliance van. She wants the nasal spray because it saved her husband.

MONICA POPE: He OD'ed three times. And he's older, so it's - take a hold on me. So when I'm trying to do me, I can't 'cause I got to watch him because, you know, once you go out, you might not come back.

CORLEY: Health Commissioner Arwady says her department, along with police and paramedics and outreach groups, are working to provide an alternative response to drug emergencies. A mapping program provides local data to determine where outreach workers are needed. Those workers are connected to doctors and groups that can provide longer-term medical treatment. There's also a pilot program where teams responding to 911 calls include paramedics, police and so-called peer recovery specialists, people who used to use illicit drugs and are good at communicating with those who still do. It's all part of a concerted effort to reduce the number of opioid-related deaths and overdoses in the city.

Cheryl Corley, NPR News, Chicago. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.