Substance Abuse Surges in Chicago Amid COVID-19 Pandemic

By Bridget Ball and Maddie Kroll

Patty Mankowski, a nurse practitioner in the emergency room at the University of Illinois hospital and a paramedic for the Chicago Fire Department, knows first-hand that there has always been a large opioid crisis in the Chicago area.

But she has noticed another disturbing trend — the numbers have spiked since the pandemic began.

“The numbers of overdoses and calls about alcohol abuse are all over the board, it’s not a specific age or demographic. It is everywhere throughout the Chicagoland area,” Mankowski said.

Since the COVID-19 pandemic started in the United States in March 2020, there has been a significant increase in many kinds of substance abuse in the United States, according to recent healthcare data studies.

An analysis of 500,000 national urine drug tests done by Millenium Health showed a steep increase following mid-March of cocaine (up 10 percent), heroin (13 percent), methamphetamine (20 percent), and non-prescribed fentanyl (32 percent).

Drug and alcohol abuse is a paramount issue that is cross-cultural and affects men and women of all ages. In 2019 alone, the National Institute of Drug Abuse collected data showing that over 70,000 American’s died from drug-involved overdoses.

In the first four months 2020, the Chicagoland area saw a 72% spike in opioid overdose calls, according to the Chicago Department of Public Health. This was a 35% increase since 2019, and there were 331 people who died during this time period.

A very common misconception is that the majority of substance abuse calls and overdoses in Chicago pertain to the widespread homeless population.

“It is not the homeless population that makes up most of our substance abuse calls. It can be anyone, oftentimes its citizens of Chicago who are having a bad day and down on their luck. We get calls for everyone, everywhere,” said Grovesmor.

Because Grovesmor is only a first responder, it is hard to say what substance is found or the citizen is suspected to be on for most of the calls. However, the most suspected substance he believes to be abused in Chicago right now is, heroin.

The west side of Chicago has become a hotspot substance abuse according to Grosvemor. Especially East Garfield Park, which has become a more well-known area of the city for drug and alcohol abuse. In January-June of 2020 alone, there were approximately 599 EMS responses to this neighborhood for Opioid-related overdoses.

Simona Tumiello, a therapist at Suburban Behavioral Health Services, claims, “The problem that people are facing within the Chicago area is that they are afraid to go to their treatment centers out of fear of catching the virus.”

Tuminello also said that people in lower socioeconomic neighborhoods are not only suffering from these addictions, but poverty is making it worse as well.

“These lower socioeconomic neighborhoods, which are so close and a part of the South Side of Chicago, did not have many economic resources to begin with. Also, the jobs they were able to get before are now vacant, which plays a role into their poverty. Poverty on top of the pandemic definitely increases the chance of substance abuse in these neighborhoods.”

Simona Tuminello / Therapist at Suburban Behavioral Health Services / Source

Paul Gilmet, the Director of Admissions at Rosecrance in Lakeview, said he noticed a similar dip in admissions to its facility during the beginning of the pandemic.

“We never closed our doors, even during the beginning of the lockdown,” he said. “We needed to ensure we were there for the people who needed help, no matter the circumstance.

“During the onset of the pandemic there was a decrease in the number of admissions to our facility. Likely because many citizens wanted to feel out the pandemic. They were receiving lots of phone-calls and were able to provide tele-health. By the summer and fall of 2020, their admissions began to rise quite a bit.”

Since COVID-19, they have implemented multiple new services and all previous services remained the same, with slight modifications to adapt to a COVID-19 aware environment. Two new features that are being offered include, tele-health and a COVID-19 anxiety support group.

The death toll from opioid overdoses, which is on the rise since the pandemic, is heavy on Chicago’s West Side. Since last March, nearly 80 people have died of an overdose in just a small amount of ZIP codes.

Although this crisis is taking the lives of many, it is not limited to the West Side of Chicago or the African American community.

In the first half of 2020, in the Chicago area, opioid-related overdose deaths were the highest among men; Non-Latinx Blacks; and adults aged 45–54. However, all ages experienced an increase in opioid-related deaths from the first half of 2020 compared to 2019. There was an increase seen between the ages of 15–25 and 65–74 year olds.

Tuminello could not say exactly what ethnicity she saw an increase in people seeking help.

“In terms of substance abuse and issues relating to mental health issues, I have seen a significant increase in all ages, genders, and ethnicities since the start of the pandemic,” says Tuminello. “I see people ranging from the age of 13–24, both male and female.”

In Chicago, rehab facilities like Rosecrance who are “ready to serve the community” have been able to provide help to citizens throughout chicago.

Chicago also offers many services for those in low income housing and to the homeless. But many of these services only go so far and the men and women tend to relapse after getting assistance, experts say.

Rehab facilities, health care workers, and members who run things like the twelve step program are doing their best to keep this crisis under control, but there is one more thing that is helping members of the Chicago community exponentially.

Mankowski said there’s some hope. Chicago is in the infancy stage of a program called CORI (Chicago Opioid Response Initiative.)

CORI’s goal is to help people who have overdosed find the help they need in rehab facilities located in the Chicago area. In order to do this, paramedics from the Chicago Fire Department will go out to an overdose call and revive the patient with NARCAN.

After doing so, they will try and get the patient to go to treatment right from the scene.

The city of Milwaukee has had this program in process for the past 18 months and Mankowski says it has been a real success.

“I rode with community paramedics in the city of Milwaukee to overdose calls, and with the CORI program, we successfully got two overdose patients to a rehab facility to get the treatment they deserve,” Mankowski said.

University of Illinois Chicago-Communications, Criminology, Law & Justice & Linguistics student with AFROTC cross town affiliation at Illinois Institute.