Allegheny County Health Department starts new campaign after fentanyl test strip legalization

The Allegheny County Health Department started a new campaign following the legalization of fentanyl test strips in Pennsylvania with the goal of saving lives.

“Dead people can’t recover,” said Onala Recovery Center Administrator Jennifer Bloodworth.

Jennifer Bloodworth found a pathway to recovery.

“I was really convinced that I wasn’t going to make it past 25 years old,” said Bloodworth. “I wasn’t really interested in making it past 25 years old. I just didn’t really know how to exist with or without drugs at that point. It was a really dark and lonely place, and I’m really grateful that I was able to stay alive during that because I made a lot of choices that didn’t align with staying alive.”

She now works at Onala Recovery Center.

“Our region is suffering,” said Bloodworth. “We are losing a lot of people. I understand that people don’t want to confront that on their way to work but some families and some people have to face that every day.”

The Allegheny County Health Department is facing the opioid epidemic by acknowledging this reality on billboards now. One of these billboards on the North side says, “Overdoses happen. Always test your drugs for fentanyl.” This is part of the health department’s campaign called, “Small Changes Big Differences,” which launched in 2022.

“We see the biggest value here for people that do not consider themselves to be opioid users,” said Allegheny County Health Department Deputy Director for Food Safety, Housing and Policy Otis Pitts. “Fenantyl has spread throughout the drug market both locally and nationwide as a result people who don’t typically use opioids are being exposed to the deadly impacts of fentanyl so for those folks that are not traditional or so-called opioid users they have an interest in understanding what is in their substance. So these test strips allow them to understand using a binary test to understand whether the drug has fentanyl in it or not, which could potentially save a life.”

On January 1, 2023, after Pennsylvania legalized fentanyl test strips, Allegheny County order 3,000 of them and started handing them out at different pop-up events for free. Before this year, the strips were classified as drug paraphernalia.

“This is consistent with the harm reduction approach, which is a set of ideas and principals designed to limit the harms that come from drug use,” said Allegheny County Health Department Deputy Director for Food Safety, Housing and Policy Otis Pitts. “We’re quite simply trying to keep people alive in hopes of linking them to treatment and a better outcome.”

Bloodworth adds these test strips are another harm reduction resource like Narcan.

“All this is encouraging is safety,” said Bloodworth. “It’s not encouraging drug use. It acknowledges that drug use exits. Clearly, we’re in the middle of a drug epidemic.”

In Allegheny County, overdose deaths peaked in 2017 at 737. The following year, in 2018, fatal overdoses dropped to 492. Bloodworth thinks that’s directly related to Narcan being publicly available, and she’s hopeful we’ll see another drop in overdose deaths in 2023 because of the availability of these fentanyl test strips.

“I understand it can be jarring for people to say, ‘hey, we want you to use drugs safely,’ but again people are using drugs,” said Bloodworth. “We’d love for them to find the opportunity to have the life that they want in a way that they want, and they just have to survive in order to do that first.”

Pitts says the easiest way to get fentanyl test strips from the Allegheny County Health Department is to call the Health Department’s Overdose Prevention Office at 412-209-2274. You can request test strips, Narcan and a training from the county’s overdose team.

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