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As Overdose Deaths Reach New Peak Nationally, New Partnership Funds Local Response for Pennsylvania Communities

Vital Strategies, University of Pittsburgh Fund Coalitions to Distribute Naloxone, Increase Syringe Access and Reduce Arrests through Diversion Programs  

Latest annual data demonstrate that 2019 was the worst year in the nation’s decades-long drug overdose epidemic, claiming more than 72,000 lives, and 2020 data so far suggest that the COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated the trend. While concerted efforts in Pennsylvania are helping the state to buck the national trend, it remains one of the most impacted, losing thousands of lives a year to overdose in rural and urban communities alike.    

Vital Strategies, a global public health organization leading implementation of the Bloomberg Philanthropies’ initiative to tackle the overdose epidemic, is partnering with the University of Pittsburgh’s Program Evaluation and Research Unit (PERU) to award harm reduction grants to nine county and community coalitions across Pennsylvania.   

“Underneath the COVID-19 pandemic we see on the news each night the drug overdose epidemic is still raging in Pennsylvania, devastating families and communities,” said Tracy Pugh, Senior Manager of the Overdose Prevention Program at Vital Strategies. “COVID-19 is likely only making it worse. We must urgently support communities in implementing evidence-based strategies that treat drug use as a health issue, and pivoting away from criminalization, punishment and stigma. The community partnerships we are announcing today will save lives through syringe access programs, the distribution of the opioid overdose antidote naloxone, and law enforcement diversion to treatment and support instead of arrest and incarceration.”  

The grant program provides nine coalitions with one-year grants of $50,000 each to work on one of four harm reduction strategies: syringe access services, community-based naloxone distribution, naloxone distribution through emergency medical services, and diversion programs to reduce arrest and increase access to services. This technical work will be supported by PERU through a technical assistance center funded by the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency (PCCD) since 2016. Grantee communities were selected from proposals submitted in response to a request issued by PERU to its network of more than 40 county overdose coalitions, and funded by Vital Strategies. 

“Harm reduction strategies are essential to reducing overdose deaths within our state,” said Dr. Janice Pringle, Director and Founder of PERU. “The community collaborations that this initiative will foster will help to build the foundation necessary to familiarize communities with these life-saving initiatives. PERU is delighted to be part of this very important work with Vital Strategies and through our Overdose Reduction Technical Assistance Center (OR TAC), we will work to ensure they are implemented in an effective and efficient manner.   

Funds are being awarded to the following: 

  • Armstrong-Indiana-Clarion Drug and Alcohol Commission for naloxone distribution through community-based trainings, at local jails and emergency departments, and EMS leave-behind programs.
  • Clearfield-Jefferson Drug and Alcohol Commission for pre-arrest diversion programming to reduce arrests and promote services, including the distribution of naloxone. 
  • Lackawanna District Attorney’s Office for community-based naloxone distribution including naloxone by mail, local health emergency departments and health centers, and EMS naloxone leave-behind.  
  • Lancaster Harm Reduction Project for expanded syringe service program capacity and service delivery in Lancaster, Dauphin, and York counties.  
  • West Branch (Lycoming County) Drug and Alcohol Commission for naloxone distribution led by certified recovery specialists to individuals and the community through local community events and collaboration with agencies, including local outpatient service facilities. 
  • Schuylkill REACH for diversion programming to reduce arrests and promote services.  
  • South Pittsburgh Opioid Action Coalition for naloxone distribution and community organizing to reduce stigma against persons who use drugs.  
  • Washington County Opioid Overdose Coalition for naloxone distribution and trainings to first responders and community members on overdose rescue, and planning and coordination for syringe access services
  • York Opioid Collaborative for naloxone distribution though the implementation of a mail-order and pharmacy delivery system.  

Following release of the funding, PERU and Vital Strategies will provide technical assistance to the grantees, as well as to the other coalitions in the PERU network who may be interested in learning about or expanding harm reduction initiatives in the future.  

This series of community harm reduction grants is part of a broader $10 million initiative that Bloomberg Philanthropies, Governor Tom Wolf, and Vital Strategies announced in November 2018 to support a wide range of overdose prevention projects throughout the Commonwealth.  

Media Contacts:
Tony Newman; 646-335-5384 

Christina Honeysett; 914-424-3356 

About Vital Strategies    
Vital Strategies is a global health organization that believes every person should be protected by a strong public health system. We work with governments and civil society in 73 countries to design and implement evidence-based strategies that tackle their most pressing public health problems. Our goal is to see governments adopt promising interventions at scale as rapidly as possible.     

About Vital Strategies’ Overdose Prevention Program  
In November 2018, Bloomberg Philanthropies announced a $50 million investment to address the country’s overdose crisis. The initiative—a first-of-its-kind partnership between Vital Strategies, Pew Charitable Trusts, CDC Foundation, and Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health—is helping up to 10 states implement solutions over three years to strengthen and scale up evidence-based, data-driven interventions to reduce risks of overdose and save lives.   

About University of Pittsburgh’s Program Evaluation and Research Unit (PERU)  
PERU is an entity in the University of Pittsburgh School of Pharmacy, which supports healthcare and community innovation development and implementation through the application of a Systems Transformation Framework (STF) applied within community coalitions across the country and a variety of healthcare settings (i.e., Emergency Departments, primary care settings, behavioral health entities, integrated care entities and pharmacies). As of 2020, PERU has 35 community health and healthcare improvement projects spanning multiple states and locations across Pennsylvania. Outcomes associated with PERU efforts include: reduction of overdose deaths in areas that work with PERU, improved engagement with healthcare innovations across rural and urban primary care programs, improved patient health outcomes that have resulted in reduced downstream healthcare costs, implementation of quasi-real time care improvement systems within a variety of healthcare settings, effective training of thousands of healthcare providers on evidence based practices, among other outcomes.