The opioid epidemic got up close and personal to the Forest Park Police Department (FPPD) when, on Feb. 19, an officer administered NARCAN to a subject at the Harlem Avenue CTA station. He was gasping for breath.

 The Cook County Department of Public Health (CCDPH) sent out a press release on Feb. 18, just a day before that incident, with the headline, “Heroin, Fentanyl Fuel Rising Mortality Rates in Opioid Deaths.”

The report calls the number of overdose deaths an “epidemic,” saying, “Heroin, fentanyl and other adulterants continued to be involved in the vast majority of almost 1,600 opioid overdose deaths in suburban Cook County since 2016.”

What is troubling and perhaps surprising is that according to the report, “The ZIP codes with the highest mortality rates were primarily located in the west and southwest suburbs and are adjacent to communities on the West Side of Chicago — an area with similarly high mortality rates. The highest mortality rates were observed in ZIP codes that include the municipalities of Worth, Broadview, Maywood, and Forest Park.”

In addition to proximity to the city, the report also cited large numbers of poor people in those four villages.

When questioned about those conclusions, Deputy Chief Ken Gross looked up his department’s statistics on use by officers of NARCAN, Naloxone Hydrochloride, a safe and effective drug that is used to reverse the effects of opioids. 

“The Forest Park Police Department,” he explained, “receives Narcan through the DuPage Narcan Program (DNP). The FPPD trained all officers on the administration of Narcan and equipped all officers with Narcan in June 2016. The first Narcan use was on June 15, 2016.”

The statistics for the dates of the CCDPH/UIC study are as follows:

2016                         6

2017                       11

2018                       10

2019                       18

2020                       12

Troubling statistics, but an epidemic?

A WTTW report last year stated, “Maywood’s 60153 ZIP code has one of the highest opioid overdose mortality rates in suburban Cook County, officials said.”

The Maywood Police Department reported that NARCAN was used by the department zero times in 2018, 31 times in 2019 and 28 times in 2020.

But the WTTW report said nothing about Forest Park. A formerly homeless man who until five months ago used to panhandle on the ramps off Harlem to I-290 said that in his experience the majority of people living on the street were on drugs, often heroin. They would buy cheap drugs at what he called an “open air drug market” on Pulaski on both sides of the expressway.  He said you could get a fix of heroin there for as cheap as $10.

His anecdote might explain the presence of opioid users congregating near the two CTA stations because those locations are prime panhandling spots, but his observations do not explain why CCDPH singled out Forest Park along with three other villages as centers of overdosing deaths.

The only explanation Tomas McFeeley, media contact for CCDPH, could offer for Forest Park being singled out is that the police are not called to respond to every overdose. A family might, for example, call the EMTs directly without notifying the police.

The homeless man along with CCDPH publications both observed that the use of fentanyl is increasing and when mixed with heroin is especially lethal.

Another CCDPH publication added this caveat: “Opioids are effective and safe when taken in the appropriate doses and for short periods of time. However, they may produce a feeling of euphoria and can be misused for this purpose. Even when used as prescribed, their use can lead to tolerance, dependence, and potentially overdose and death.”

Using Narcan

Following are the dates and locations of FPPD Narcan deployments for last year:

1-18-20      Harlem/Roosevelt

1-23-20      I-290/Desplaines River

1-25-20      Desplaines/I-290

2-20-20      Harlem/Roosevelt

2-27-20      Desplaines/Van Buren

4-18-20      Desplaines/Van Buren

5-3-20        Harlem/Jackson

5-10-20      Roosevelt/Marengo

8-22-20      Madison/Maple

10-22-20    Harlem/Circle

10-23-20    Marengo/Franklin

11-19-20    Desplaines/Van Buren