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‘This Has No Vaccine’: Families, Friends Gather On Overdose Awareness Day To Remember Those Who Have Died

For thousands of Allegheny County families, the coronavirus pandemic only exacerbated an epidemic they’d experienced for years. Since 2008, more than 5,500 county residents have died from an accidental overdose, according to the county Medical Examiner’s Office.

In honor of Overdose Awareness Day, the group Pittsburgh Won’t Forget U displayed the photographs and written memories of hundreds of family members and friends who have died as a result of accidental overdose at the downtown City County Building portico Tuesday.

The organization started in 2017 as a grief and advocacy group, largely on social media, by Jeanna Fisher, after the death of her 28-year-old daughter Marley. Since then, more than 6,000 people have followed her Facebook page, where they share snippets of their loved ones’ lives and struggles.

“I don’t know if anybody’s paying attention, but the life expectancy of Americans dipped because of the death rate of this,” Fisher said. “We know what we need to change and it hasn’t changed.”

While overdose rates dropped in 2017 and 2018 thanks largely to the availability of Narcan in the region, Fisher said help for those with substance use disorder seems to have left the minds of many.

“When COVID came along, our momentum swung away,” Fisher said. “But this has no vaccine.”

In conversations with families through Pittsburgh Won’t Forget U, she said she’s noticed a lot of grandparents having to raise grandchildren because their children are unable. With COVID came a slew of new problems: How can older relatives stay safe when children are unable to be vaccinated? Where can they find financial support to raise these kids? Why doesn’t health care cover more treatment for those with opioid use disorder?

Fisher said she hopes to see legislation that addresses many of these issues, and more awareness and conversations around opioids in Allegheny County.

Mayor Bill Peduto issued an executive order Tuesday to “allow the possession and use of fentanyl test strips” in Pittsburgh. He said the strips would help people who use drugs like heroin identify fentanyl, which is a strong opioid and top cause of death. The order means the strips will be distributed to more caregivers and resource centers, and those with them will not be arrested or charged with any crime.

Katie Blackley is a digital editor/producer for 90.5 WESA, where she writes, edits and generates both web and on-air content for features and daily broadcast. She's the producer and host of our Good Question! series and podcast. She also covers history and the LGBTQ community. kblackley@wesa.fm