Philadelphia Considers ‘Safe Injection’ Sites

With a projection of 1,250 overdose deaths this year, most from opioids, city officials visited a safe drug injection site in Vancouver and were impressed.

Since July, Philadephia has handed out 19,000 packs of Narcan to deal with drug ovrerdoses, more than triple what it handed out all last year. They call it “flooding the zone,” writes columnist Mike Newall. The city projects 1,250 overdose deaths this year, the overwhelming majority from opioids. That’s one more death per day than last year’s toll. “We can’t Narcan our way out of this crisis,” Newall says. City agencies are speaking a common language to deal with the crisis, after the Health Department was not actively involved until last year. A city task force is trying to persuade doctors to prescribe fewer opioids, emphasizing the need to get people into medically assisted treatment as well as harm-reduction techniques that help save people who are not yet ready for treatment. There’s a plan to station recovery workers in emergency rooms to meet victims of nonfatal overdoses and get them into treatment — known as “warm handoffs.”

At a task force meeting last week Health Commissioner Dr. Thomas Farley and other officials reported on their trip to a safe-injection site in Vancouver. “It’s the most comprehensive harm-reduction model I’ve ever seen,” said David Jones, commissioner of Philadelphia’s department of behavioral health. Farley spoke about how normal the site in Vancouver seemed — how it saved lives, undeniably. Even though heroin overdose deaths are spiking in Vancouver, in the 10 years the safe-injection site has been open, no one has died on the premises. “These show a model for how supervised injections could occur and save lives,” Farley said. “And it was a model supported widely not just by medical staff and community advocates but also by the police department.” Philadelphia is expected to make a decision soon on whether to open such sites.