Isolation, overdoses, fewer recovery options: The opioid epidemic through the eyes of Pittsburgh-area recovery workers

Black residents are now the most likely ones to suffer an overdose in Allegheny County. The pandemic has increased the challenges of addressing an epidemic that was already spiking.

by Oliver Morrison

Stephanie Hamilton-El has been working from the same parking lot near Shuman’s Homewood restaurant almost every Saturday since February.

She’s an outreach worker for Message Carriers, an East Liberty nonprofit focused on addiction recovery. And she’s had a front-row seat to a recent spike in opioid overdoses.

It was still cold outside when she started showing up at the parking lot eight months ago, so she put a sign in her car window that read: “Ask me about Narcan.”

If she saw someone who she thought could use Narcan, she’d jump out of the car and offer it to them, she said.

She had just arrived for work one day at the beginning of the summer when she heard a cry for help. A 66-year-old man was slumped down in front of an abandoned building nearby. Hamilton-El ran over, administered Narcan and called 911.

The man had only been home from prison for about two months, a time period when people suffering from addiction are especially vulnerable, like when they exit rehab and their body’s tolerance for taking drugs has dropped off. He refused to be transported to the hospital when he became alert, she said, so she handed him a box of Narcan.

He died the next week of an overdose, she later found out.

At the time, just two months ago, the official story about the opioid epidemic in Allegheny County was still promising. The last public updates showed the number of overdose deaths in 2018 had dropped by more than 40%. But as Hamilton-El was seeing firsthand, those numbers no longer reflected reality.


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