By Sandy K. Johnson

When drug overdose deaths rose a staggering 74 percent in one year, from 2015 to 2016, it was a wake-up call to the city of Chicago.

The public health department responded with an action plan to tackle community education, provider education, treatment and ways to reverse overdoses.

Dr. Elizabeth Salisbury-Afshar, medical director of behavioral health for Chicago, said the demographics of the city’s opioids crisis are slightly different than the rest of the country. The highest overdose rates, for example, are among African-American men aged 45-64. That means the city needed to focus its limited resources into those communities at the highest risk.

Among the city’s initiatives:

  • Creating and publicizing a website,, with information on prevention, overdose response and treatment. It’s available in English and Spanish.
  • Training health providers on topics ranging from pain management to opioid misuse treatment. In 2017, the city provided 40 trainings that reached 1,700 health professionals
  • Proactively going into the communities where illicit drug use is most prevalent. The city works through three community organizations, financed by city and state funding, to distribute free naloxone and to educate people about syringe exchanges and hepatitis C.

The city has also invested in recovery home services, recognizing that Medicaid only covers 28 days of in-patient treatment. When that ends, “If you’re going back to the street, the chances that you’ll be able to maintain your recovery are limited,” she said. The recovery homes provide a safer environment for outpatient treatment.