Allegheny County lifting limits on needle exchanges

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Renee Cox has a map that shows where Prevention Point Pittsburgh, with its needle exchange program, cannot go.

That’s because in 2008, the Allegheny County Health Department enacted regulations that said no needle exchange programs may be located within 1,500 feet of an elementary school, a primary school, a secondary school or a day care or drug treatment facility.

It turns out that the rules leave few other locations available that are not within the city’s parks, its cemeteries or Heinz Field, said Ms. Cox.

Prevention Point and the health department have pushed recently for that 1,500-foot rule to be dropped within densely populated Pittsburgh.

The health department and Prevention Point representatives spoke to Allegheny County Council on Tuesday night, and the council gave its blessing to the rule change, voting 14-0, to drop the 1,500-foot requirement. A spokesman for Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto said the administration is reviewing the change.

In May, the health board unanimously approved a motion to lift the location restrictions for needle exchange programs within the city. The 1,500-foot rule would remain in the rest of the county.

“I think it was well-intentioned, but I don’t think anybody knew that it would wipe out the entire city of Pittsburgh,” she said. “I don’t think people were really aware of how prohibitive it would be.”

It still would be a long process for a new location to open, since the health department and city council still must approve one, Ms. Cox said.

“There are very strict safeguards in place,” she said.

Prevention Point has not determined a proposed new location for its services, which are currently available for five hours a week in two grandfathered-in locations, one in the Hill District and the other in Oakland, said Ms. Cox.

The lifting of the rule allows Prevention Point’s “very necessary, really critical program” to respond to what she and county Health Director Karen Hacker said is a growing heroin problem in the region, she said.

Prevention Point encourages the use of clean needles to avoid spreading disease, and the encounter is an opportunity to learn about treatment, she said.

She and Ms. Cox said Prevention Point’‍s work is especially critical in light of the spike of heroin overdose deaths reported earlier this year in Allegheny County.

“It’s a real public health crisis,” Ms. Cox told council members.

She said needle exchange programs can often function as a bridge to treatment.

Last year, Prevention Point assisted 500 people at the two locations, she said. Of that number, 130 entered drug treatment.

Visitors also can be tested for disease, such as HIV, and they can receive training about how to rescue people who have overdosed, Ms. Cox said.

Kaitlynn Riely: or 412-263-1707.

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