A clean needle exchange that provides free syringes to drug users could soon open in the Carrick neighborhood, making it the first needle exchange in the southern part of the city.
The Allegheny County Board of Health voted on Wednesday in favor of a request from Prevention Point Pittsburgh, a nonprofit that runs the city’s three other needle exchanges. If city council also gives the OK, this exchange will operate out of a vehicle stationed at the Spencer United Methodist Church parking lot on Thursday afternoons.
In a letter dated Sept. 10, the church's pastor, Rev. Matthew Price, wrote to the county board of health that, "We are deeply concerned with the opioid crisis in our community, and we believe that our calling as Christians is to do whatever we can to bring healing and freedom from addiction to our neighborhood."
Pittsburgh's existing needle exchanges are located in the North Side, East End and the Hill District, though Carrick has long been a hotspot for opioid use.
Allegheny County health department data shows that from 2015 to 2016, Carrick had 22 opioid-related overdose deaths, the highest of any other Pittsburgh neighborhood. In fact, of the nine neighborhoods that had 10 or more of overdose deaths during this period, six are located south of the Monongahela River.
Prevention Point's executive director Aaron Arnold said people who must travel the farthest to an exchange are the least likely to use clean needles. This puts them at risk for serious health conditions such as HIV and hepatitis.
"We know a lot of people who ... may be low income, who don't own a car, who are relying on public transportation,” said Arnold. “Our logic here was let's put something on the other side of the river because we know that those people are not showing up to our current sites.”
Though the public health community is vocal about the need for an exchange in south Pittsburgh, many say not-in-my-backyard sentiments have prevented one. But Arnold said that might be changing; he said residents at a recent Carrick community meeting were receptive to the idea.
“We saw … [a] lot of people who were really willing to hear new ideas, who were really willing to listen to the evidence behind this intervention,” he said. “This is about people who are experiencing potential exposures to infectious disease.”
Another benefit of the needle exchange possibly coming to Carrick is that more naloxone would be distrubted to the community, Arnold said. In addition to syringes, staff and volunteers also dispense this life-saving medication, which can revive someone who has overdosed.
After the "leave behind" program, where emergeny medical workers give overdose victims naloxone, Prevention Point is the leading distributor of the medication in Allegheny County.
Data suggests that increased naloxone may be making a difference. While last year had a record number of overdose deaths, fatalities also declined througout 2017. The hope is this possible new exchange will help continue that trend.
In the meantime, Arnold said Prevention Point is also considering establising exchanges in Millvale, McKees Rocks and the Mon Valley. The organization also wants to acquire another vehicle so the exchanges can provide wound care, as well as HIV, hepatitis C and STD testing.