This summer, the Health Department The Substance Use Prevention and Harm Reduction team set-out to teach Philadelphians how to use test strips to detect the presence or absence of fentanyl, a powerful synthetic opioid that is 50 to 100 times stronger than morphine. In Philadelphia, fentanyl is often found in heroin and pressed pills (Xanax, oxys, percs) and could contaminate other drugs like cocaine, crack, and other stimulants.

The campaign start coincided with the release of the Mayor’s Executive Order decriminalizing fentanyl test strips in Philadelphia. It was supported by many community partners including Savage Sisters, The Everywhere Project, South Philly Punks with Lunch, and 24HRPHL. The campaign targeted areas that had seen an increase in overdoses as well as areas where people use drugs recreationally.

What’s in a test strip kit?

The fentanyl test strips given away were packaged into kits including 10 strips, each with instructions on how to use them, a pocket-sized set of instructions with pictures, and information on fentanyl. The kits also included a NEXT Distro card, which is a mail-based program where people can receive free Narcan and fentanyl test strips.

How were the kits given out?

Health Department staff held 45 events in places like South Street, 22nd & Lehigh, Frankford Transportation Center, Graffiti Pier, and 8th & Market. At each pop-up event, staff provided literature and information on fentanyl and Narcan. They conducted live demonstrations of how to use a fentanyl test strip using a Tums, a water bottle cap, and sterile water. In an effort to catch passers-by attention, we even had a cheeky sign made to draw attention: a pink and blue sign with cartoon fentanyl test strips that read, “TEST YO $%^&.” Admittedly, this is not what you’d normally expect from the Health Department, but it made people laugh and stop to ask what we were doing. This opened the door for honest conversations about fentanyl test strips with people who might not normally stop at a table like this.

Why is this important?

It’s important to make sure people know about fentanyl test strips because, if they’re buying a substance off the streets of Philly, they should assume there is fentanyl present in it. It only takes a few minutes to use fentanyl test strips so people can make informed choices for safer use. One man from West Philly even shared that he overdosed from taking a pill he thought was Percocet but happened to contain fentanyl.

SUPHR staff recommend that folks take some test strips and share them with loved ones who might need them. They even distributed them to businesses, such as barbershops, smoke shops, and individuals in cars took fentanyl test strips.

Language mattered throughout the entire campaign. It was more effective using words like “Percs” or “Percocet “or “Oxy’s” rather than opioids or opiates. In certain neighborhoods, there are people who do not think of Percocet or Oxycodone pills as an opiate.

How did it go?

Overall, the Health Department gave away 11,715 test strips and 394 doses of Narcan over 45 events in four months. However, there were hundreds of memorable moments and potentially life-saving conversations.

Every Wednesday, the SUPHR staff partnered with South Philly Punks with Lunch at Broad and Snyder. They gave out homemade food, drinks, clothing, and additional harm reduction supplies. They even would bring a radio and we would listen to music.

The final event was a concert and mutual aid event hosted by Savage Sisters, Operation In My Backyard, and the South Philly Lunch with Punks. The event was held at FDR skate park in South Philly. Each nonprofit had tables set and a stage was set up for live music. While we were there, we had the opportunity to do Narcan and fentanyl test strip trainings on stage for everyone in attendance. It was a great way to end the 45-day campaign.