Chicago-Area Paramedics Reviving Opioid Overdose Victims in Record Numbers

If you see an ambulance racing past you anywhere in the Chicago area, the chances of it responding to an opioid-related drug overdose have never been stronger.

NBC 5 Investigates has obtained eye-opening data from the Illinois Department of Public Health that shows how often local paramedics are administering naloxone to reverse the effects of an opioid overdose. 

Although naloxone can sometimes be used for other types of treatment, IDPH experts said that its increased usage gives a clear indication of where most opioid overdoses are happening.

State data shows EMS crews in Chicago administered naloxone 9,602 times in 2017, continuing a year-over-year increase.  In fact, paramedics responding to calls in Chicago’s Homan Square administered the life-saving device 3,520 times in between 2012-2017.

You can view this interactive map to see how often first responders administer naloxone in your neighborhood.

The influx of overdoses is coming from prescription painkillers and illegal drugs, including heroin and synthetic fentanyl.  According state health officials, 2,109 people died from an opioid-related overdose in Illinois in 2017.

UIC professor James Swartz is studying the IDPH data in order to help local governments learn how often opioid-related overdoses occur and who is most likely to overdose.

“I don’t know that we have peaked just yet,” Swartz said.  “The data that I’m looking at through 2017 continues to show an increase the number of overdoses as well as the number of fatalities.”

Few communities across Greater Chicago have more opioid-related drug overdoses than the northern suburb of Waukegan.

The Waukegan Fire Department said it has administered naloxone 190 times this year between January and November.

“They’re definitely adding to our workload.  They’re time-consuming calls as well,” said Lt. Ryan Koncki of the Waukegan Fire Department.

Naloxone is also known as Narcan.  First responders said patients may revive within several seconds of receiving a dose, but they are advised to seek further medical attention before the naloxone effects wear off.

Daniel James said paramedics revived him with naloxone several years ago and he has since used the life-saving device on another person.

But he said many people who come out of an overdose are not quick to seek the help they need.

“Saying to an addict ‘just stop’ is like saying to a chicken ‘just fly’,” said James.

However, James received treatment and is now sober.  He said he recently started working in the field of opioid use disorder to help other people.

“There’s somebody out there now that’s dope sick that’s walking the streets with nowhere to go,” James said.  “If I can somehow be a part of the instrument that gets them to where I am today, that’s a lot.”

Swartz said while the number of overdoses is still high, the rate of increase is diminishing.

“I’m hoping, expecting in the next year or two that we start to see it reversing,” Swartz said.  “A lot of people are doing a lot of hard work on multiple fronts to try to reverse this.”

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