Pittsburgh taking different approach to combatting opioid epidemic

PITTSBURGH — It’s an epidemic that hit a peak in 2017 in Pittsburgh, but the number of opioid overdoses is on the rise again.

“The narrative is that it’s attributed to the pandemic, but actually it began before the pandemic, and because we see a drug supply that is chaotic and unpredictable,” said Josh Schneider, Pittsburgh’s Overdose Coordinator.

The city is taking a new approach, with a pre-hospital overdose program. For the first time, paramedics will be able to provide people who have overdosed a tablet called buprenorphine. Then paramedics can connect people with a UPMC telehealth program for further treatment.

“Giving that patient something material in that moment so they can feel better, then get (them) connected to the care they need,” Schneider said.

It’s all about providing options to those who are struggling.

“We have that tool added to the toolbox now, where we can (do) something more to extend our care beyond just driving someone to the emergency room and hoping someone else fulfills the role,” said James Dlutowski with Pittsburgh EMS.

Pittsburgh is just the third city in the country to implement this program. While the drug has only been administered less than a dozen times, the success has been evident.

“We expanded that pilot program to medics 10, 4, 11; which is all of the northside (and) portions of the east end. So we have doubled the amount of ambulances that carry buprenorphine and tripled the number of paramedics,” Schneider said.

Schneider said the evidence doesn’t lie. Other similar programs show the drug cuts mortality rates in half for people with opioid abuse disorder and reduces crime.

“We should all care about the health and safety of our neighbors, and this is just one more strategy that is going to offer people an option to enter recovery, and ultimately make the community healthier and safer,” Schneider said.

This is just one portion of the Office of Community Health and Safety’s Overdose Prevention mission. Another program started this year is the distribution of fentanyl test strips by Pittsburgh EMS.