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As Pittsburgh prepares to launch a new city needle exchange, officials call for state support

Kiley Koscinski
90.5 WESA
Syringe services supplies are laid out on a conference room table in the City-County Building.

The City of Pittsburgh is gearing up to launch its own needle exchange program in August. At a downtown office, the exchange will provide naloxone, clean syringes and other materials used to inject drugs, and referrals to drug treatment and disease testing. The Allegheny County Board of Health approved the program in May.

According to Laura Drogowski, a manager in the Office of Community Health and Safety, the city will find local medical and recovery center partners to help operate the site and shape the future of the program.

“We do want people to be able to trust the people they’re talking to. We can appreciate why government employees may not feel like the right fit,” she said. “We think that we need many partners doing this.”

The city’s needle exchange will be the first fixed location in downtown Pittsburgh, not far from the Allegheny County Jail. Drogowski hopes the program can serve those getting released from the lockup. Research has found that formerly incarcerated individuals are 40 times more likely to die of an opioid overdose than someone in the general population.

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“We don’t want people to go far. We want to be able to talk to them and support them before something happens,” she said. “That proximity to the jail is in part because we know there are people who will need the services there.”

The location also provides easier access for people who can’t make it to one of several other needle exchanges operating in Pittsburgh, said Drogowski. There is not currently a needle exchange in the city’s South Side, and the closest one operates once a week in Carrick. Drogowski hopes the downtown location will draw people from the city’s southern neighborhoods.

The city needle exchange will operate on Mondays from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. at 611 Second Avenue. Drogowski said program organizers wanted to start with a day not already covered by Prevention Point Pittsburgh.

Prevention Point has been providing syringe services in Pittsburgh since 1995. The nonprofit operates needle exchanges out of vans parked in East Liberty, Perry South, the Hill District, Carrick and Homewood.

Kelly Prokop, Prevention Point's operations director, said the city getting involved in needle exchanges will help her group manage an ever-increasing demand. Two to three times more people are using Prevention Point services today compared to 2019, according to Prokop.

“We’re so happy that people know about us and are coming to us, but at a certain point, we’re just going to give out all of the syringes that we have,” she said. “If there are other places that people can reliably go… that would be huge for the people that we serve.”

Prokop said more people are relying on needle exchanges for a variety of reasons, including more people injecting drugs or more people going back to injection after abstinence. She also cited increased awareness of Prevention Point’s services as a cause for the uptick in clients.

The city will use American Rescue Plan dollars and the city’s general fund to support the program. But leaders from Pittsburgh, Allegheny County and the Pennsylvania Health Department gathered Thursday to call for the state to do more to support needle exchanges.

“These programs save lives in our city and should be expanded across our commonwealth,” said Pittsburgh Mayor Ed Gainey. “We cannot do it alone. We need our leaders in Harrisburg to do more to end this overdose crisis.”

Pittsburgh Mayor Ed Gainey was joined by state and local health leaders at a press conference Thursday calling for the legalization of needle exchanges in Pennsylvania.
Kiley Koscinski
90.5 WESA
Pittsburgh Mayor Ed Gainey was joined by state and local health leaders at a press conference Thursday calling for the legalization of needle exchanges in Pennsylvania.

Gainey was joined by acting Pennsylvania Health Secretary and Physician General Dr. Denise Johnson, Allegheny County Health Department Director Dr. Debra Bogen, city councilor Bobby Wilson and others at a press conference, calling for state lawmakers to do more to support exchanges.

Public health experts have long pointed to needle exchanges as part of an alternative strategy to ineffective zero-tolerance policies targeting the opioid epidemic. Individuals who use needle exchanges are less likely to contract HIV and Hepatitis C and are five times more likely to enter treatment, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Harm reduction programs are gaining support nationwide, with President Biden setting aside $30 million last year for programs that include needle exchanges. But Pennsylvania is one of ten states where they are illegal.

Currently, needle exchanges only operate legally in Allegheny County and Philadelphia. Both areas have their own municipal public health authorities that permit such exchanges. But counties elsewhere in Pennsylvania receive public health services from the state, which does not have the authority to permit syringe services.

“We at the Department of Health strongly support syringe services,” said Dr. Denise Johnson, acting Pennsylvania Health Secretary and Physician General. “Many communities that could really benefit from these services are not able to do it because of regulation.”

The law also prevents federal dollars from funding needle exchanges in Pennsylvania, which hinders existing exchanges, according to Johnson. “It would be great if they could expand it, but they’re really constrained because they don’t have the resources to do it,” she said.

A bill under consideration in the state House and a similar one in the state Senate’s judiciary committee would change Pennsylvania law to allow statewide syringe services programs. It’s unclear when either bill could be voted on. But leaders expressed a sense of urgency Thursday.

“We need them to become law so that we can get the resources that are necessary to help out in this disastrous situation,” said Gainey. “Together, we can heal our community, but it’s going to take us all.”

Before he was elected mayor of Pittsburgh, Gainey supported the effort to legalize needle exchanges across Pennsylvania as a state representative. He invited Pittsburgh organizations interested in launching needle exchanges to reach out to the city Thursday.

“We are committed to help health systems and other organizations across our city to navigate the process to be able to expand this program,” said Gainey. “If we are going to be successful in our work to make our city safe for everyone, then we need to be the leaders in this work to combat overdose crisis everywhere.”

Kiley Koscinski covers city government, policy and how Pittsburghers engage with city services. She also works as a fill-in host for All Things Considered. Kiley has previously served as a producer on The Confluence and Morning Edition.