COVID-19 shows why harm reduction programs must be treated as essential services

A new resource from AIDS United underscores how the COVID-19 pandemic reinforces the urgent need to support syringe services and harm reduction programs as essential services.

Syringe access has long been a vital, proven part of ending the HIV epidemic. But the rapid devastation of the COVID-19 pandemic meant that harm reduction services had to adapt quickly to meet social distancing, shelter-in-place orders and quarantine guidelines across the country.

Overdose deaths continue to skyrocket, and more than 300,000 people in the United States have died from COVID-19.

On top of all this, millions of Americans are facing profound mental health problems associated with COVID-related traumas ranging from the loss of loved ones and physical health to the loss of jobs and housing.

Many syringe services and harm reduction programs refused to close, instead opting for instant innovation in service delivery, acting within and as their own mutual aid networks and employing an “anything for our clients” work ethic while maintaining staff safety.

Those living with substance use disorder are more likely to acquire COVID-19 and more likely to experience worse outcomes like hospitalization and death, according to a troubling National Institutes of Health study.

It is that much more imperative now to consider SSPs/HRPs essential service providers within this landscape, and to support them as such during this crisis and after.

Recently, AIDS United, the Coalition for Syringe Access and NASTAD created a best practices document for drug user health programs, public health agencies and people who use drugs and engage in sex work to navigate the winter as safely as possible.

You can check out “Syringe services programs and harm reduction programs as essential services” on our website.