DuPage expanding its response to the opioid crisis
Acknowledging that DuPage's battle against opioid abuse is complex and far from over, county officials have created a new task force to lead the effort.
The Heroin/Opioid Prevention and Education (HOPE) Taskforce is a joint operation of the county board and the DuPage County Health Department. County board Chairman Dan Cronin formed the 19-member panel to replace the DuPage Coalition Against Heroin, which worked to raise awareness and educate the public about the dangers of the drug.
"It became more and more apparent that a big part of what we needed to do to effectively address this heroin crisis was treatment and interventions," Cronin said. "A lot of that was within the skill set of the public health department."
Led by county board member Grant Eckhoff and Dr. Lanny Wilson, vice president of the health department board, the task force includes 17 specialists in mental health, law enforcement, the court system, substance abuse treatment and prevention, and education.
Karen Ayala, executive director of the health department, said the task force will comprehensively assess opioid use in the county and then recommend and actionable policies, initiatives and programs.
"Finally, we want to be able to demonstrate that we're making an impact," said Ayala, who serves on the task force. "So evaluation is a huge component."
The creation of the task force comes amid a rising death toll from overdoses across the suburbs. In 2017, DuPage recorded 95 confirmed opioid-related deaths, the same number as 2016, according to the coroner's office.
"The heroin epidemic is not getting better," Ayala said. "It's getting worse."
To address the problem, Ayala said there's a need for an overall strategy.
"It requires cross-sectoral participation at multiple levels," she said. "So it can't just be about 'Just say no.' It's got to be elements that are woven together."
The five elements the task force will explore are:
• Reducing access to drugs;
• Reducing opioid use and misuse;
• Increasing overdose response;
• Integrating mental health and substance use disorder treatment and recovery;
• Continuing substance abuse prevention and education.
Ayala said the education and prevention efforts are important because there are "more people coming into this epidemic than we have leaving this epidemic."
"So what we're doing is just building up this mass of individuals who have extra needs within our community," she said.
One message the group wants to spread is that people shouldn't self medicate, especially when dealing with pain.
"There has to be a level of acceptance that we need to take responsibility for our own health and not look to pharmaceuticals to do it all," Ayala said.
Meanwhile, Cronin said he's expecting the task force to seek grant money to help pay for treatment.
"We brought our best and brightest folks in the public health sector to lend their services and their input," Cronin said. "They have the ability to secure grant monies and to implement programs."