Sarah Danforth begins her daily routine, stacking boxes of clean syringes and unpacking the tools she needs to help those in search of a clean start.
“I feel as though I am a conduit,” she said. “I help other people save lives.”
Danforth is in harm reduction services for Prevention Point Pittsburgh, an Allegheny County-authorized needle exchange program. Prevention Point’s mission is preventing the spread of HIV/AIDS, Hepatitis-C and other blood borne infections among intravenous drug users, but, according to Danforth, the organization’s original mission has expanded in recent years.
“We provide sterile syringes for people who inject drugs,” she said. “We also provide free naloxone and overdose prevention training."
Naloxone, also sometimes referred to by the brand name Narcan, is an overdose-reversing drug for opioids.
Danforth, in her job with PPP, finds herself combatting the opioid epidemic that’s been plaguing much of America, with the Pittsburgh-area and the rest of western Pennsylvania being no exception.
In 2017, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention listed Allegheny County within the top five regions in the country for overdose deaths, based off of data collected in the previous year. Most of those deaths involved opioids, raising concern among lawmakers and those affected.
“There were over 700 overdose deaths, which is a huge number for our county,” Danforth said. “That same year of 2017, over 600 people were reversed, their lives were saved through the Naloxone that we distributed.”
Danforth works with a small crew at PPP. On the days they are out in the community distributing clean needles and naloxone, they operate out of an unmarked white van at a three different Allegheny County locations: East Liberty, Perry Hilltop and the Hill District.
On this day, she is joined by her colleague Katie Houston, who says Danforth sets an empathetic and mission-oriented working environment at PPP.
“When I started working here, Sarah was very helpful,” Houston said.
Houston says that tone established by Danforth in the workplace translates into the services provided to those PPP is serving—as an organization focused on harm reduction, PPP’s job is not just to distribute needles and naloxone, but to educate those dealing with substance abuse issues on how to engage in that behavior as safely as possible.
“One step of harm reduction you can take as an injection drug user is to never use alone,” Houston said. “That way if you or the person that you are using with overdoses, the other person is there to use the Naloxone on them, to do rescue breathing, to call 911, to make sure that person stays alive.”
As Danforth wraps up her prep work for the day, loading up the unmarked white van that serves as the mobile needle exchange in the community, she reflects on the fact that the work she and her colleagues are doing is not done without its share of controversy.
“There’s this idea that if there is a needle exchange program in your neighborhood, that it might bring drug use or crime to your neighborhood,” Danforth said.
But she notes that there’s a social-scientific consensus refuting those kinds of notions.
“Over 20 years on national and international research say that is not the case,” Danforth said. “What we have done is created opportunities for people who need our services in that neighborhood to get them and sort of help improve their health.”
Danforth acknowledges that dealing with a crisis like the opioid epidemic is complicated work, but she says she takes pride in offering a service that for many has been the difference between life and death.
“I know a lot of people whose lives have been saved. I’m just so grateful, their family is so grateful,” Danforth said. “Anytime you have the opportunity to save a life, that’s a good day.”