In the midst of containing the COVID-19 virus, New York and the U.S. have also been battling a separate epidemic: drug overdoses.
Three Western New York counties — Niagara, Chautauqua and Erie — have seen an increase in suspected overdose deaths since the pandemic started.
“For people who are already struggling with substance use, with mental health, with other conditions, behaviors, diseases — this COVID-19 pandemic which is just continuing to go on can really be quite challenging,” Emma Fabian, the associate vice president for Evergreen Health’s Harm Reduction program, said.
Throughout this, Evergreen Health’s Syringe Exchange Program in Buffalo and Jamestown continued to operate. The program offers free syringes to anyone who injects drugs or other substances like insulin, vitamin or steroids.
“We have the first and only syringe exchange program here [in Western New York] which is the core of our harm reduction services,” Fabian said. “Our doors are open here for people to come in equipment that they need to use drugs as safely as possible.”
Approximately 30 years of research show that syringe exchanges are safe and effective, do not increase illegal drug use, crime and help reduce the transmission of HIV and other blood-borne illnesses, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Evergreen Health, previously called AIDS Community Services, was founded in 1983 to address the HIV and AIDS crisis in Western New York by a handful of volunteers.
In the almost four decades since, the health care provider continues to make behavioral health accessible, practicing a harm reduction treatment approach and philosophy which provides tools to help minimize harm as a result of drug use.
Included in that model is access to naloxone (the reversal drug used for opioid overdoses), medication assisted treatment and counseling, she said.
“Naloxone has been popular the past few weeks and months where we’ve seen what we think might be an increase in overdoses due to fentanyl being in the supply locally of illicit substance like cocaine,” Fabien said.
Evergreen Health’s harm reduction model encourages those who use drugs to have a supply of naloxone on hand, start with a smaller amount than normal, use a fentanyl test strip on your supply and consider calling a helpline like Never Use Alone at 1-800-484-3731.
“Harm reduction support is available regardless of what they’re going through,” Fabien said. “We have naloxone, as much naloxone as people need; we have fentanyl test strips that we encourage people to take regardless of what their drug of choice is.”
To learn more about Evergreen Health’s behavioral services, visit their website.