The other epidemic

While the human suffering of COVID-19 has captured our nation's attention, the other epidemic in America still rages on: our nation's opioid crisis. Before COVID-19, we were in the midst of the worst drug overdose crisis in our history. As a result of the convergence of these health emergencies, we are failing those most vulnerable to addiction.

Recently, I spoke with Illinois advocates of the American Society of Addiction Medicine, Illinois Society of Addiction Medicine and Live4Lali. These community advocates are providing lifesaving health care, through telehealth services, street medicine, handing out fentanyl test strips and distributing the overdose reversal drug naloxone. The statistics they shared with me on overdose increases from 2019 to 2020 were overwhelming.

Opioid deaths have increased 39 percent in Lake County; 33 percent in Cook County; 17 percent in DuPage County; and 30 percent in McHenry County. In Chicago, Black residents are dying at seven times the rate of white residents from opioid overdoses, highlighting an unconscionable racial equity challenge.

Not only are we experiencing the spread of coronavirus, but also isolation and new burdens into so many households across Illinois. The advocates I met with called it a perfect storm: COVID-19 has magnified insecurities and stress over health and safety, of losing a job and putting food on the table. At the same time, it has forced a decline in lifesaving treatment and social services, restricting access when these programs are most essential. This trauma has sadly contributed to alarming spikes in suicides, addiction and overdoses across so many communities.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, emergency room visits for suicides and opioid overdoses increased starting in late March 2020, after the pandemic gripped our nation. And by May 2020, the country had experienced its largest single spike in overdose deaths in a recorded one-month period. A record 2,233 of our neighbors in Illinois died from opioid overdoses in 2019, yet Illinois deaths in 2020 appear to have increased by more than 20 percent.

We must do everything we can in Congress to give communities and health providers the support they need to serve those most vulnerable during this health crisis. Congress must quickly take up and pass President Joe Biden's American Rescue Plan.

The American Rescue Plan includes nearly $4 billion in addiction and mental health treatment grants to health providers and $7.6 billion to Community Health Centers to dedicate health care resources and outreach to underserved communities. It includes legislation I have introduced with Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio to invest $1 billion through the National Health Service Corps to build the pipeline of clinicians who can provide health care services - including behavioral health treatment - and it expands health insurance coverage through the Affordable Care Act and Medicaid. I'm not exaggerating when I say this funding can literally save lives.

We can't turn our back on the other pandemic of opioid overdose. Illinois has lost too many people, from every walk of life and nearly every ZIP code. As we battle the coronavirus, let's not forget this deadly threat of opioids.

• U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, a Springfield Democrat, is majority whip and chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

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