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County officials push for education, collaboration to curb opioid epidemic

Officials said education, training and tough enforcement on drug dealers will be key to combatting a drug epidemic that killed nearly 100 people in Will County last year.

The Edward Hospital Athletic & Events Center in Romeoville was packed April 21 as people gathered for the sixth annual Hero-Helps Southwest Coalition Community Summit.

The event was again hosted by the Village of Romeoville, and featured a resource expo on services and programs addressing the heroin and opioid epidemic. There were more than 30 tables set up in the building, including those for United Way of Will County, Trinity Services and Southwest Coalition for Substance Abuse Issues.

Among some of the topics addressed during the summit included new legislature in the works, grant opportunities and initiatives aimed at working toward a solution to the heroin and opioid epidemic in the suburbs.

Will County Executive Larry Walsh, Sr. credited the community for its efforts to come together with one mission in mind: to reduce overdose deaths and save lives.

To reverse the effects of the heroin and opioid epidemic, Will County has implemented a number of measures to educate, support and bring awareness to the issue. From annual events and partnerships to grants and training, the community is working across municipal and county lines to make a difference.

Will County hired Dr. Kathleen Burke a few years ago as its new director of substance abuse initiatives.

Under her leadership, efforts have been employed to establish a pilot Safe Passage program with the Mokena, Lockport and Lemont police departments. Through this initiative, a person suffering from any type of opioid addiction is encouraged to come into a participating police department and ask for assistance. They will be connected with and escorted by a volunteer to a treatment facility.

“Our goal is to offer this program to other departments in the county,” Walsh said.

Will County State’s Attorney Jim Glasgow is currently working with State Rep. Natalie Manley (D-Joliet) to pass statewide legislation for a turn-in program that extends protections and treatment to heroin addicts.

Glasgow said he encourages collaboration statewide to move closer to eradicating the problem. He said heroin knows no boundaries.

“Any of us can turn into a zombie if...someone injected us with heroin,” Glasgow said. “That’s why law enforcement has changed the paradigm. We’ve got to look at this in a whole different way.”

Glasgow said law enforcement officials don’t want to raise penalties for drug offenses and said the community must know that heroin dealers are still being caught.

“Heroin dealers got to be on notice,” he said. “’You’re selling poison,’ and we’re going after drug-induced homicides as aggressively as we possibly can. We want the drug dealers to know in addition to the dealing charge, you’re going to get a consecutive charge for killing the person you’re dealing the drug to.”

In 2016, a reported 96 people died of heroin, fentanyl and opioid overdoses in Will County, the highest number of overdose deaths ever.

One of the challenges faced in Will County is in educating the public on what services and programs are available.

Burke said the County will be working to fill the gaps in the services provided for behavioral health.

“Both mental health and substance, we know that we have huge gaps in our community, and we’re going to be working over the next couple years to fill those gaps,” she said. “[We’re looking to] have service providers where… they’re needed and identifying that and letting people know that, so that we can invite them to do that.”

Burke noted the level at which support is available on county’s east side and said they’ll be working to address the equity issue also.

Burke stressed that it’s all about “connecting the dots.”

“If you’re not in the heart of the community, you can get disconnected,” she said. “My purpose in the work that I do is to bring people together.”

Another talking point raised during the summit revolved around the stigma of seeking help for an addiction.

Department of Human Services Family and Community Services Bureau Chief Kim Fornero said people should start thinking more carefully about the vernacular they use.

“We need to start using different terminology—addict, user,” she said. “We tend to imply something. I’m trying to be intentional with my language. Again, it’s going to take a minute to say, ‘substance abuse disorder.’”

”It is a disorder; it is a brain disease, and we need to start treating it as such.”