Syringe Service program announced for Pittsburgh to decrease drug addiction health problems

PITTSBURGH — In Pittsburgh overdose deaths are rising: from 2019 to 2020 overdoses increased in the city by 22%. In response, the city announced on Thursday its first syringe service program, one that would be located downtown right next to the Allegheny County Jail.

“I think that people are really afraid of what they don’t understand,” said Laura Drogowski, a manager in the Office of Community Health and Safety.

Pennsylvania is one of only 10 states where syringe programs are still illegal at a state level. But, in Allegheny and Philadelphia, county ordinances allow these sorts of drug prevention programs.

“We did have to navigate what was a new process to us,” explained Drogowski. She shared that at the onset of the program’s establishment the city was required to identify an exact location, day of the week, and time to provide these services.

The location and time approved by the city council and the board of health are Monday from 9 a.m. until 5 p.m., which may seem small, but experts said it’s a huge step.

“We want to be able to implement a harm reduction strategy to make drug use safer,” said Josh Schneider, the Overdose Prevention Coordinator for the Office of Community Health & Safety.

Schneider said the city wants to be able to get people struggling with drug addiction access to resources and treatment through things like our syringe service.

On Thursday morning, Mayor Ed Gainey touted that syringe programs help reduce the spread of HIV and hepatitis, and serve as a gateway to recovery.

“People are five times more likely to enter treatment and recovery through syringe service programs,” said Drogowski.

With no state support or funding, the city will use money from the American Recovery Act to pay for the programming for the next two years but will need a long-term solution.

“Right now, syringes are considered drug paraphernalia,” said State Representative Sara Innamorato who represents the 21st District.

Innamorato is the co-sponsor of a bipartisan bill that would change that, and open the door to state funding, but first must overcome the stigma of drug use.

“They don’t plop down in a neighborhood with a program, but they work with the neighborhood and talk to them about their concerns,” said Innamorato.

The city syringe service program is expected to launch later this summer and will be located at 611 2nd Avenue, in Downtown Pittsburgh on Mondays from 9 a.m. until 5 p.m.