Outreach worker Keith Davis holds up two naloxone packets
Outreach worker Keith Davis poses with naloxone on May 12, 2023, during a public outreach session in West Garfield Park. Credit: Dilpreet Raju

Despite a precipitous drop in the overall number of opioids prescribed in Illinois, the number of accidental overdoses—both fatal and nonfatal—have continually risen over the last decade, according to the Illinois Prescription Monitoring Program and the Illinois Department of Public Health’s (IDPH) opioid data dashboard.

Since 2017, overdose deaths in Illinois have exceeded the state’s combined total of homicide and road accident deaths year after year.

As this public health crisis grows, more Chicago community members will need to step up and provide care to our most vulnerable populations. This can be done on an individual level by always keeping Narcan (the brand name of the drug naloxone)—a lifesaving medication that can reverse opioid overdoses—in your backpack or purse.

“One of the largest pushes of our state has been to be able to have Narcan for everyone,” said Tanya Sorrell, cochair of the Illinois Harm Reduction and Recovery Coalition, a broad group of people from all walks of life focused on reducing overdose deaths and the stigma around substance use in Illinois.

Individuals can pick up doses of Narcan, and receive training on how and when to administer it, free of charge at any Chicago Public Library branch or other locations such as Lurie Children’s Hospital (1440 N. Dayton), Life Changing Community Outreach (5900 W. North Ave.), and Heartland Alliance (1015 W. Lawrence).

However, the effort can’t stop there. 

Various entities and establishments qualify to receive doses of naloxone at no cost through Access Narcan, an initiative of the IDPH Division of Substance Use Prevention and Recovery’s (SUPR) Drug Overdose Prevention Program (DOPP)—educational facilities, nonprofits, local businesses, faith-based organizations, county jails, and recovery homes, just to name a few.

Sorrell, a psychiatric nurse practitioner by training, is also director of the State Opioid Response grant, which partially pays for the doses of naloxone handed out through the Access Narcan program. She emphasized that naloxone is an invaluable lifesaving resource akin to CPR.

“CPR isn’t for us. We can’t give ourselves CPR. We use that for someone else,” Sorrell said. “We need Narcan if someone else might be in need.”

Signing up with DOPP means the registering organization will have to fill out a standing order with the state health department. 

The standing order, which grants nonclinical staff the ability to stock naloxone, affirms that the organization will: record whenever naloxone doses are dispensed to the public, participate in approved training and provide approved training to those who receive naloxone, and contact IDPH should they no longer be able to distribute naloxone.

“We know substance use is an isolating issue. It’s an isolating medical condition, just like depression is an isolating medical condition,” Sorrell said. “There’s stigma involved, and when people do use by themselves, they’re less likely to be found to be revived if they have overdosed.”

Yolanda Bradley, business manager of WestCare Illinois in Pilsen, the Chicago branch of a multistate social services organization, said the agency has been distributing Narcan since 2016. She said that every so often other organizations will stop by to pick up some extra boxes if they happen to run out.

In a June episode of the podcast Illinois Primary Health Care Association Health Talks, Kathleen Monahan (state opioid response project director for SUPR) said, “We were legislated to create a drug overdose prevention program back when we had a different name, we were the Division of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse.”

“Any community organization that is doing outreach work with people who use drugs or in communities that are experiencing high levels of overdose” would be an ideal candidate for the DOPP, she said.

Monahan added that SUPR’s federal funder, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration “wants states to be saturated with naloxone.”

“These days you hear about fentanyl in a lot of the drug supply and so parents of teenagers are very interested in having this on hand,” Monahan said. “We are encouraging wide distribution of Narcan across the state.”

IDPH recommends calling DOPP providers ahead of time to ensure availability of naloxone.