Senate Healthcare committee hears testimony after opioid deaths increase 30%

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The COVID-19 pandemic has shed a light on opioid overdoses, as deaths have increased in Illinois.

The Senate Healthcare Access and Availability committee heard testimony Tuesday from several witnesses related to the crisis, including representatives from health care, judicial and social work fields.

Dr. Leslie Wise with the Illinois Department of Public Health said the number of lives lost in 2020 to the opioid epidemic in Illinois was 2,872, a 30% increase from 2019.

“The substance abuse landscape across the state is very different depending on location, however synthetic opioids, specifically fentanyl, are the main cause of fatal drug overdoses statewide,” said Wise.

Wise said the highest opioid fatality rate is among Black or African-American men, but the largest increase in the rate of death in 2020 was in Hispanic and Latinx populations with around a 48% increase from 2019.

There are several potential reasons for the spike in deaths. During the pandemic, support services and medical treatment for people with opioid additions were interrupted. Social isolation tied to social distancing is another likely contributor. Depression and anxiety fueled by isolation may cause some to relapse and increase drug use.

DuPage County States Attorney Robert Berlin testified that in most cases, his office does not put drug users behind bars.

“Putting drug users in jail or prison is truly a waste of resources,” Berlin said. “We try to get them into treatment.”

Illinois House lawmakers are looking to take action to help prevent more people from losing their life. House Bill 3445 would provide protection from prosecution to people seeking medical attention for an opioid overdose.

The measure advanced out of the House Mental Health and Addiction Committee and moves to the floor for consideration.

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