2020 in review: Syringe Access Fund

The Syringe Access Fund is a collaborative grantmaking initiative currently supported by AIDS United, the Elton John AIDS Foundation, the Levi Strauss Foundation and ViiV.

The fund seeks to reduce the health, psychosocial and socioeconomic disparities experienced by people who use drugs. To that end, the fund invests in evidence-based and community-driven approaches to prevent the transmission of both HIV and viral hepatitis, reduce injection-related injuries, increase overdose prevention and reversal efforts, and connect people who use drugs to comprehensive prevention, treatment and support services.

The statistics are sobering. In the United States, 10% of new HIV diagnoses are attributed to injection drug use, a reversal of previous gains. The Centers for Disease Control estimates that 60% of hepatitis C cases are directly or indirectly related to injection drug use. Overdose mortality, on the rise in 2019, increased even further during the COVID-19 pandemic, in some cases reversing prior gains. Reported overdose deaths rose nearly 30% between March 2020 and March 2021 to over 96,700, according to the CDC. This devastating figure represents the greatest number of fatal overdoses ever recorded in one year.

Syringe Access Fund awards grants that support either syringe services programs to provide direct services or harm reduction organizations conducting community education and mobilization activities focused on legalizing or strengthening syringe services programs availability at the local, state and federal levels.

In this regard, 2020 was a year of great progress and accomplishment. The fund has made a remarkable impact on public policy and public health, awarding $675,000 through 24 grants in 19 states and Puerto Rico. With this support, grantees distributed 8.8 million syringes and 1 million doses of naloxone to 84,000 participants and led advocacy efforts to change laws nationwide, so these programs can reach more people in need. Awards were made to relatively new grassroots organizations in states without support for syringe services programs, including the Arkansas Harm Reduction Coalition, Stop Harm on Tulsa Streets, the Iowa Harm Reduction Coalition and Trystereo New Orleans Harm Reduction Network. These investments allow young organizations to support full-time staff to work on syringe services and community education in states without syringe services programs.

Still, unquestionably, 2020 was a challenging year. Shelter-in-place orders, curfews, and physical distancing recommendations resulting from COVID-19 complicated prevention education and materials distribution. Keeping staff and participants safe while also providing services became problematic during this time. Grantees reported being affected by the shifts in state, local and the federal government agency responses to the pandemic or needing to pause funded activities due to heightened risk. Some grantees transitioned to mailing supplies, resulting in increased costs and additional challenges reaching folks who were unstably housed or unhoused. Other grantees provided drive-thru services and one began distributing supplies through their mail slot to maintain syringe services in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. Early on, AIDS United recognized the need to use Syringe Access Fund resources, originally set aside as rapid response funds for the year, to effectively support organizations in their efforts to maintain services during the pandemic.