By Sophie Pinkham
Owens is an outreach worker with the Lower East Side Harm Reduction Center, which has temporarily stopped doing outreach due to Covid-19-related safety concerns. But he still covers the parks, public restrooms, and drug houses of the South Bronx, Washington Heights, and Lower Manhattan as a volunteer with VOCAL-NY, a grassroots organization that grew out of the AIDS epidemic and is staying open during the lockdown. Many harm reduction programs are still running as essential services, though others, such as those that operate out of county health departments, like Michigan’s, are now largely closed because of Covid-19. Owens is concerned about what the lockdown will mean for drug users—in particular, for people who use opioids and are at high risk of fatal overdose. “We fear that overdose is going to rise,” Owens told me, “because there’s not enough services. We’ve already lost so many people to the overdose crisis.”
Around the country, organizations that work to reduce drug-related harms such as overdose, HIV, and hepatitis C are now facing yet another devastating virus. And for active drug users, people in drug treatment, and people without stable housing, business closures and physical distancing mandates are causing a cascade of economic and practical difficulties that compound health dangers. “I worry for my community,” said Kelly Culbert, who works at NYHRE, an East Harlem harm reduction center that has closed temporarily. “They’re scared. They have very little access to equipment [for safer drug use]. And everything has become more problematic—from the ways people were making their money to locating a dealer and that person having an adequate supply. It’s all become riskier, less available.”
Among the harms that advocates like Culbert fear most are a spike in overdoses, increased syringe sharing, and a choice between self-isolation and excruciating drug withdrawal. There are already reports from across the country of increased overdose rates.
Project SAFE works with women and queer people who use drugs in Philadelphia’s Kensington neighborhood, delivering harm reduction supplies and offering a place to take a shower or a nap. Many program participants are precariously housed and stay up all night to avoid being assaulted; they need a place to help them escape the cycle of exhaustion.
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