"We've seen quite the range of folks coming in with overdoses," says Dr. Steven Aks, a toxicologist and an emergency room doctor at Stroger. "Young kids from the suburbs that come in the city and use, people from our community that have been using heroin for years."
To get a handle on the problem, the county system has rolled out a number of initiatives. It launched a South Side community triage center, with plans to add one on the West Side. It also wants to certify more doctors to prescribe drugs like methadone to help opioid users kick their addictions. Cook County Jail detainees who doctors identify as having an opioid-use disorder get the overdose antidote naloxone upon release.
At Loretto Hospital, on the West Side, 1 in 3 patients visit the ER with an opioid-related issue, whether it's an overdose or a condition exacerbated by their addiction, such as asthma flareups. That's because heroin, for example, can reduce the number of breaths a person takes per minute.
The hospital, which offers inpatient and outpatient addiction therapy, treated about 2,000 patients for opioid-related conditions from July to January. Of the roughly 1,200 people who were hospitalized, nearly 40 percent were readmitted, underscoring the deep grip of addiction.
That's a problem for hospitals, too, because the federal government financially penalizes them if patients come back too quickly after they're discharged.
"We have frequent flyers despite what help they get," says Dr. Sandeep Mellacheruvu, who runs Loretto's behavioral health and addiction services.