A Safe Passage program in Rock Island County soon will be a reality to help those addicted to opioids.

Sheriff Gerry Bustos talked about the program, which has been in the works for about a year, during a round-table discussion Tuesday with treatment providers, court services and Illinois Lt. Gov. Evelyn Sanguinetti at the Robert Young Center-Community Support Program in Rock Island.

Safe Passage, which Bustos said he hopes to see operating by Jan. 1, will allow opioid users to turn in their drugs to law enforcement, no questions asked. They then will be taken to a facility for treatment.

“It’s taken a long time for this,” Bustos said. “We’re a pretty large community all in all, but I felt it was necessary that we do this together, all of us,” he said. “Whether somebody’s in East Moline or Milan, they can go to the local police department and start the program, rather than having to drive, say five or ten miles and perhaps change their mind or find a reason not to ask for help.”

He said service providers have been identified and policies have been written. The county is in the process of reaching out to local community groups to find volunteers who can take people to the treatment facilities.

Rock Island County is not immune to the growing opioid problem that has swept the nation. Since Jan. 1, a total of 17 people have died from opioid-related overdoses, Bustos said.

Prior to this year, Rock Island County recorded 46 deaths since 2011, he said.

Gov. Bruce Rauner recently signed an executive order that created the Governor’s Opioid Overdose Prevention and Intervention Task Force, which was tasked with touring the state to seek guidance from stakeholders to help implement the Illinois Opioid Action Plan.

The goal of the action plan is to reduce opioid overdose-related deaths in Illinois by one-third within three years.

Rauner appointed Sanguinetti to co-chair that task force with Dr. Nirav Shaw, director of the Illinois Department of Public Health.

“We hit the ground running and we hit the ground running fast because people are dying and simply put, this epidemic knows no neighborhood, no color, no class,” Sanguinetti told reporters before the round-table discussion. “It’s an equal opportunity aggressor, and this is why we’ve been traveling the state as soon as we got our action plan together, trying to find out how other communities are handling this epidemic and how we need to implement this plan to make sure that our lives are not lost any longer in Illinois due to this."

She said nearly 1,900 people across the state have died from an opioid overdose-related incident in the last year. That number likely is higher with the use of synthetic opioids, such as fentanyl.

What has surprised her most, Sanguinetti said, is that the situation is still stigmatized.

“If you have a substance use disorder, people feel that they can’t come out of the woodwork and tell their story because they’re going to end up being judged,” she said. “A lot of times, if you have a substance use disorder, sometimes that’s coupled with an underlying mental health issue, so now you’re talking about two issues that are stigmatized.”

During Tuesday's round-table discussion, participants discussed the various services that are available in Rock Island County, such as medication-assisted treatment and Drug Court, which aims to get people the help they need, rather than send them to jail. 

Heather Olson with the Center for Alcohol & Drug Services and Robert Young Center, said a state grant will help Rock Island County and nine other counties provide first-responders, namely law enforcement, with training on how to use naloxone, known by the brand name Narcan, which can reverse an overdose. The grant also will provide the life-saving medication to local police departments, she said.

Some law enforcement in Rock Island County, including the sheriff’s office, carry naloxone.

Bustos stressed the importance of collaborating to better address the opioid crisis locally.

“This is an issue that we have to put on paper,” Bustos said. “We need to all recognize that this is a problem that we have to deal with and we have to deal with it as a community. What’s great about this is these are all community partners that are making this happen. None of us can do it alone.”

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