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Overdose deaths dropped last year in Allegheny County, though racial disparities persist

The Downtown Pittsburgh skyline in late spring.
Katie Blackley
90.5 WESA

The Allegheny County Health Department reports the number of residents who fatally overdosed in 2022 was 689 — 30 fewer deaths compared to 2021. But while the overall overdose rate is down, officials report that deaths among Black residents increased.

To address this disparity the Allegheny County Health Department’s deputy director of food, housing and public policy Otis Pitts said more harm reduction outreach to the region’s Black community is needed.

Best practices for safe drug use include not ingesting or injecting drugs when alone, and carrying naloxone, the medication that can revive someone from an opioid overdose. Another important safeguard is the use of fentanyl test strips which allow people to determine if the powerful opioid is present in their drugs.

“Some people just don’t know that they may be coming across fentanyl,” said Pitts. “That’s a big part of the puzzle.”

In addition to heroin, fentanyl has been found in all sorts of illicit substances including methamphetamine, cocaine and even the psychedelic MDMA.

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While fentanyl remains the primary driver behind the national drug overdose epidemic, public health workers are contending with a new threat: xylazine is a tranquilizer used in veterinary medicine, and has been linked to a growing number of overdose deaths, particularly in east coast cities such as Philadelphia.

Like fentanyl, Allegheny County’s health department encourages people to test their substances for xylazine. While xylazine is often found with fentanyl, is it not an opioid and therefore people who have overdosed on the sedative won’t respond to naloxone, making detection prior to use even more important.

“We've given out over 2000 of those [xylazine test stripes] and so far the feedback has been good there as well,” said Pitts.

People who use xylazine often develop soft tissue damage, including abscesses and ulcers. So there have also been increased efforts to offer wound care to people who use the substances. A lack of immediate treatment may result in the amputation of a digit or limb.

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.