Pgh Mayor Gainey, state leaders call for more access to syringe exchanges

State law currently prohibits most syringe exchanges. Bills now before the state House and Senate seek to change that

By: - February 6, 2022 6:30 am

Pittsburgh Mayor Ed Gainey tours a Prevention Point Pittsburgh van with Executive Director Aaron Arnold on Thursday, 2/3/22 (Pittsburgh City Paper photo).

By Jordana Rosenfeld

PITTSBURGH —  Mayor Ed Gainey joined acting state Health Secretary Keara Klinepeter on a tour of Prevention Point Pittsburgh  last week, where they called for a change to state law on syringe access programs.

“In Pennsylvania, we have the third-highest rate of drug overdose deaths in the country and the ninth-highest rate of new HIV infections,” Klinepeter said during last Thursday’s event. “We’ve got to turn this around. That’s why we need to use every tool in our disposal, and we need to work to expand access to programs such as syringe services across the commonwealth.”

Prevention Point Pittsburgh provides evidence-based harm reduction services for people who use drugs, including syringe services programs (SSPs), which provide access to clean syringes and other medical supplies, disposal of needles, as well as referrals to drug treatment, disease testing, and other health services. SSPs are proven to reduce the risk of transmission of blood-bourne pathogens like HIV and can also reduce overdose rates if they offer opioid antagonists like naloxone, as Prevention Point Pittsburgh’s does.

Pennsylvania currently prohibits most syringe exchanges, like the Oakland harm-reduction nonprofit the two officials visited, in most of the commonwealth.

Prevention Point Executive Director Aaron Arnold told Pittsburgh City Paper the organization has served Pittsburgh since 1995 and currently operates their syringe services program in five sites across the city.

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The pandemic has brought a “huge increase in the need for the services we provide,” Arnold said. Prevention Point gave out about 600,000 syringes in 2019, Arnold says, and 1.4 million in 2021.

“This is about public safety and keeping people safe,” Gainey said at a press conference after the tour. “These are the [syringes] that if we didn’t have somewhere safe, they would be on the ground.”

When asked if he would support a supervised injection site, another harm reduction intervention for people who inject drugs, in Pittsburgh, Gainey said he would.

Gainey was joined on the tour by state Pittsburgh-area state Reps. Sara Innamorato and Emily Kinkead, who also asked for legislative authorization for the programs.

The federal government is offering funding for syringe exchange programs, but Pennsylvania can’t access it because state law currently considers syringes felony drug paraphernalia, Innamorato said. This law applies to all parts of the state without a municipal health authority.

Syringe exchanges are legal in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia with the permission of their county Health Departments. Innamorato and a Republican co-sponsor have introduced legislation to allow for SSPs in communities statewide.

Pennsylvania recently received a C on a state-by-state report card for its efforts to halt the spread of hepatitis infections. The report by coalition of research and advocacy groups recommended that the state, among other things, increase access to sterile syringes which would help contain the spread.

In an e-mail, a spokesperson for the Pennsylvania Health Department told the Capital-Star that the agency is “continuing to make progress in the fight against Hepatitis C and take steps to improve our score, such as finalizing our elimination plan and making it public-facing.”

The spokesperson, Mark O’Neill, said the Health Department supports the passage of Innamorato’s House legislation and a companion Senate bill that would expand access to sterile syringes and other public health services, such as HIV and hepatitis testing. Acting Pennsylvania Physician General Dr. Denise Johnson is a supporter, O’Neill added.

“These programs do not exist to encourage drug use – they exist to reduce harm and build trust with participants to ultimately help them get treatment for substance use disorder along with any other health care needs,” the Health Department said.

Such programs “also increase public safety and protect law enforcement and first responders by properly disposing of used syringes,” the Health Department said

The department also is “seeking additional funding from the state budget for Hepatitis C, which would improve our score substantially,” O’Neill told the Capital-Star.

Jordana Rosenfeld is a reporter for Pittsburgh City Paper, where this story first appeared. Capital-Star Editor John L. Micek contributed additional reporting.

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