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Pittsburgh approves $1M pilot program to bring recovery specialists to overdose victims

A container of Narcan sits on a table following a demonstration at the Health and Human Services Humphrey Building on Friday, Sept. 8, 2023, in Washington.
Mark Schiefelbein
A container of Narcan sits on a table following a demonstration at the Health and Human Services Humphrey Building on Friday, Sept. 8, 2023, in Washington. Health officials held an event on Friday to mark the availability of the opioid overdose-reversal drug naloxone without a prescription.

Update on Oct. 31, 2023: Pittsburgh City Council voted unanimously to authorize the Post Overdose Support Team Tuesday. A spokesperson for the mayor did not immediately respond to questions about how soon recovery specialists would be hired to work with Emergency Medical Services.

Original story published Oct. 26, 2023: Pittsburgh may soon test out a program that assigns case managers to people who have repeatedly overdosed.

City Council preliminarily authorized receipt of a $1 million grant Wednesday to launch a post-overdose support team in two neighborhoods with high rates of overdose: Downtown and the South Side.

According to the city’s Office of Community Health and Safety, Pittsburgh’s first responders are seeing an uptick in overdoses and part of that increase comes from people who repeatedly overdose. After first responders administer overdose reversal drugs, city officials say people often refuse further treatment at a hospital.

“What happens is, they're revived through Narcan, but then they refuse to go to the hospital,” said Camila Alarcon, assistant director of the Office of Community Health and Safety.

Alarcon told council Wednesday the refusal stems from a “distrust” in the health care system.

According to research from the federal department of Health and Human Services, people who repeatedly overdose are at a significant risk of suffering from a myriad of health consequences including severe brain damage and death. Experts also report people who suffer multiple overdoses are at a higher risk of dying.

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If given final approval next week, the city would use a $1 million federal grant to create a “Post Overdose Support Team” of certified recovery specialists and case managers who would follow up with an overdose patient to provide easier access to recovery programs and other support.

Alarcon said the city plans to hire a small team of peer recovery specialists and case managers to provide this support.

“These are people with lived experience who themselves have been in active drug use,” Alarcon explained. “That creates a little bit more trust.”

The six-person team will work directly with Pittsburgh’s Emergency Medical Services workers. EMS will remain the primary responder to an overdose incident. But after first responders administer overdose reversal drugs when possible, they can call in the post-overdose support team to take it from there.

Alarcon said the support team will encourage people to enter recovery, but the primary focus will be finding temporary housing in a hotel or addressing other immediate needs.

“Sometimes they just need a meal. Sometimes they just need a coffee,” she said. “Sometimes they just need other mental and behavioral health services.”

Post-overdoses support is the latest strategy proposed by the Gainey administration to manage the opioid epidemic. The city announced it would open a harm reduction center along Second Avenue Downtown where people could collect sterile injection equipment and overdose reversal drugs.

But more than a year and a half later, that site has yet to open. City officials told WESA in the spring the building — which was previously used by the Department of Public Works — needs several renovations before it can open to the public.

In the meantime, outreach workers would connect people on the street with harm reduction tools as part of their daily routine.

The city also finalized plans to train service industry workers in overdose prevention methods in the spring. But no training has taken place yet.

Councilor Deb Gross announced Wednesday the first overdose resource fair for service industry workers is scheduled for next month.

Some members of council expressed concern on Wednesday about whether the post-overdose support program should be piloted in neighborhoods other than Downtown and the South Side. Council members Theresa Kail-Smith and Anthony Coghill said they would like to see the services brought to their districts.

Coghill noted a high rate of overdose incidents in the city’s Carrick neighborhood and questioned whether the South Side or Downtown had more incidents.

“My district is overrun,” Coghill claimed.

Alarcon said the two pilot neighborhoods were selected based on EMS data that showed the highest rate of overdoses occur Downtown and in the South Side. But she added if overdose rates skyrocketed somewhere else, the support team could reconsider where to deploy its efforts.

“If you're seeing people who are recurring overdoses, you can refer them into the program,” Alarcon said. “If there’s someone in Carrick, in the West End, in Lawrenceville, wherever: they can deploy there.”

Council could finalize approval for the pilot program as early as next week. It’s unclear how soon afterward a support team could begin working alongside EMS.

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.