With overdose numbers escalating, part of the Sangamon County juvenile detention center on Dirksen Parkway would be turned into a detox unit under a proposal now under consideration by the county.
Planners acknowledge hurdles that include coronavirus and a breakdown in a plan to make detox services part of a center for the homeless on 11th Street that dissolved a year ago amid community objections and Mayor Jim Langfelder's failure to support the proposed center.
"It's not a dead issue," Mike Torchia, director of county probation services, said at a Tuesday meeting of a consortium of public officials, health care providers and others formed to figure out ways to relieve pressure on the county jail and emergency rooms while helping addicts, drunks and the mentally ill recover and stay alive. "There's still a strong interest in the community to proceed this way." Remodeling unused portions of the detention center would cost nearly $380,000, according to an April report from local planners with grant money from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, but no money has been committed.
The center would house acutely intoxicated people on a short-term basis while also giving folks with substance abuse issues a week or so to find long-term help.
The proposal survives as the number of Sangamon County overdose deaths has soared. So far this year, 26 people have died from overdoses and, with toxicology test results pending from July deaths, Coroner Jim Allmon expects that number to rise by four or five. In 2019, 39 people died from overdoses.
Fifty-four people died from overdoses in 2018; there were 62 deaths in 2017. With the growing availability of naloxone, a drug that reverses overdose effects and revives victims, Allmon had hoped that the county had turned a corner last year. But it typically takes more naloxone to counteract a fentanyl or carfentanil overdose than a heroin overdose. Eleven deaths this year were due to fentanyl overdoses, according to the coroner's office, and another was due to carfentanil, a synthetic drug said to be 100 times more powerful than fentanyl, which can be 100 times more potent that heroin. Just one overdose this year has been deemed due to heroin. Another was attributed to a combination of methamphetamine and fentanyl.
While fentanyl and carfentanil have been on the drug scene for years, the synthetics are spreading, says Jonna Cooley, executive director of Phoenix House, which runs a needle exchange program and provides other services for people who inject drugs. The center about a month ago began providing test strips to drug users so they can determine whether purported cocaine, methamphetamine or benzodiazepines such as Xanax also contains fentanyl, she said.
"Maybe they're using cocaine or they're taking Xanax in pill form or whatever – drugs laced with fentanyl and they don't know it," Cooley said. "Those are the people who are overdosing. They don't think that their drugs could be laced with fentanyl." And by the time they reach a hospital or otherwise get help, Cooley says, it is too late.
Cooley said drug users have requested fentanyl test strips, which are much like pH water-testing strips, for some time. "They're very expensive – we were hesitant to pass them out," she said. "We finally just decided we need to take that step to protect more people."
At Tuesday's consortium meeting, Joan Thome, director of health education for the Sangamon County Health Department, said that the department has stepped up efforts to distribute naloxone, with doses provided to liquor stores, tobacco shops, pawn stores and other businesses to give to those who might be in need. These include low-rent motels on the east side, she told the consortium. "They have been calling, requesting refills," Thome said. "We're getting our fingers way out there."
Coroner records show that three of the Sangamon County overdose victims this year are African American, with 23 of the victims listed as white. Thome said that few people requesting and getting doses of naloxone are African American. Nonetheless, Thome told the consortium that she and another health department official plan to meet with Ward 2 Ald. Shawn Gregory and Ward 3 Ald. Doris Turner to help ensure that people in the African American community aren't left out and get the help they need.
This year's overdose victims range in age from 19 to 68, according to the coroner's office. Allmon says that he's not seeing hardened or dangerous criminals. Rather, he says, he's breaking bad news to loved ones from all walks of life.
Cooley said that the Phoenix Center is seeing an increase in people asking for HIV tests and other services. "I do think that the pandemic certainly had quite an effect on everything," she said. "Some people have been laid off work who were using. Now that they're not working, they're able to use more frequently."