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COVID Cases Still Low In Allegheny County, While Opioid Overdoses Continue To Plague Residents

Katie Blackley
90.5 WESA
Naloxone is the medication that can revive someone from an opioid overdose. Now that the majority of Allegheny County adults are vaccinated, public health experts hope that people will choose to use opioids in the presence of someone with naloxone. This increases the chance of the opioid user of being revived if they overdose.

Allegheny County’s Board of Health on Wednesday met in-person for the first time since March 2020.

Most of the board members appeared maskless. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that a person who is fully vaccinated against COVID-19 does not have to cover their face while indoors.

Though the COVID vaccine continues to keep new coronavirus infections at lower levels, the opioid epidemic is still plaguing western Pennsylvania, especially Black Allegheny County residents.

Last year the overdose rate was 95 per 100,000 Black residents, while in 2019 it was 61 per 100,000. In comparison, the overdose rate among whites was 53 and 47 per 100,000 in 2020 and 2019 respectively.

“These data are deeply disturbing,” said board member Joylette L. Portlock, executive director of Sustainable Pittsburgh.

Up until 2018, the county’s overdose rate among whites and Blacks was about the same. Last year the disparity got worse, though public health officials aren’t sure why.

“One common hypothesis is the sense that fentanyl is being introduced into new drug markets. And communities that have no tolerance for opioids [are] falling victim,” said Otis Pitts, director of the health department’s bureau of food, safety, housing and public policy.

Now that vaccinated people don’t have to physically distance, Pitts said there is a hope that people will be more likely to choose to use opioids while in the presence of others. Public health experts say this practice increases the odds of a person being revived if they overdose.

Pittsburgh's Marshall-Shadeland neighborhood saw the largest percent increase in overdose fatalities from 2019 to 2020. That was followed by the Middle Hill, Larimer, Bloomfield and Hazelwood.


Health department director Dr. Debra Bogen told the board that the county is reporting about 14 new cases a day. There was a brief period last summer when the county’s daily case counts were at a similar level, if not slightly lower. That ended largely due to up to an uptick in travel, as people visited places such as Florida, then brought back COVID and spread it to their neighbors.

“This is a worldwide pandemic...what happens elsewhere in the world will likely impact us here,” Bogen said during a press briefing that followed the board meeting. “The higher our vaccination rates, the fewer the people who are able to spread the virus.”

On Wednesday, the county reported its highest number of new COVID cases in nearly a month. Bogen said it is too soon to determine if this jump is a statistical blip, or the start of a new trend.

Young people and historically marginalized communities continue to have lower vaccination rates. State data show that more than half of white county residents are fully vaccinated. Meanwhile, just a third of Black residents, and less than 20% of Asian-Pacific Islanders in the county are fully vaccinated.

Bogen said that her department is working to address low vaccine confidence among different populations, along with other medical providers in the county.

“If there’s an event that’s happening in the public, some provider is out there offering vaccines under a tent, at a van,” Bogen said. “I really don’t think access is the issue at this point.”

Bogen said about 1,500 county residents are getting vaccinated each day; at the height of the vaccine rollout some 20,000 people were getting the vaccine.

Paid Sick Leave

The board voted in favor of a paid sick leave regulation during the meeting.

Member Anthony Ferraro abstained, citing a conflict of interest as he is a business owner. The other seven board members voted in favor of the rule that requires employers with 26 or more people on staff to provide at least one hour of paid sick leave for every 35 hours someone works.

A person could use this sick time in a number of ways, such as to take care of a family member, or if a public health emergency causes their child’s school to close.

Some members expressed interest in returning to the issue in the future, citing concerns that smaller employers were not beholden to the regulation.

“[That’s] a big loophole there in terms of potentially not having people covered who are sick,” said board chair Dr. Lee Harrison, an infectious disease physician at the University of Pittsburgh.

Now that the sick leave regulation passed the Board of Health, it moves on to the Allegheny County Council for an up-or-down vote.

Earlier this year the council voted in favor of paid sick leave legislation. But County Executive Rich Fitzgerald vetoed it, saying that, while he supports paid leave, for legal reasons the issue had to first be considered and approved by the Board of Health.

Now that this administrative stage is complete, it is anticipated that the council will vote in favor of the board-approved regulation.

Sarah Boden covers health and science for 90.5 WESA. Before coming to Pittsburgh in November 2017, she was a reporter for Iowa Public Radio. As a contributor to the NPR-Kaiser Health News Member Station Reporting Project on Health Care in the States, Sarah's print and audio reporting frequently appears on NPR and KFF Health News.