Opioid Overdose Deaths and the Transmission of HIV and Hepatitis C Continue to Climb As the State Continues to Address the Current Public Health Crisis
TRENTON – As New Jersey continues to battle COVID-19 in our communities, we cannot neglect to address the epidemic that has long impacted our state: the opioid overdose crisis. To expand access to critical services, Senator Joseph Vitale and Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle introduced legislation that would expand access to Harm Reduction Centers in New Jersey.
In 2016, the New Jersey legislature took an important step forward in advancing services and support for individuals struggling with substance use disorder by making the state’s syringe access program permanent.
Syringe access programs, also referred to as Harm Reduction Centers, provide sterile syringes and supplies for safer drug use, naloxone and overdose prevention education, resources for critical services such as HIV care, treatment and pre- and post-exposure prophylaxis services, screening for HIV and other sexually transmitted infections, as well as testing for Hepatitis C, and linkage to substance use disorder treatment, housing, counseling, support groups, medication for opioid use disorder, prenatal care, and other essential health services.
The legislation, sponsored by Vitale and Vanieiri Huttle, would remove burdensome regulations that often prevent the establishment of Harm Reduction Centers, which currently leave most New Jerseyans without access to the life-saving services offered that they need.
“The principles of harm reduction are simple. We must accept that there is drug use in our communities,” said Senator Joseph Vitale (D-Middlesex). “Some ways of using drugs are more dangerous than others. We need to meet people where they are, rather than forcing on them some preconceived notion of what their life should look like. We need people who use drugs to inform these programs based on their experience and what has worked for them, rather than pretending we know exactly how they should run, never having walked a moment in their shoes. Harm reduction programs use compassion first, without judgment.”
“Harm reduction is the most essential tool that we have to support our loved ones struggling with addiction. Despite the clear evidence that harm reduction services work and lead to better outcomes, New Jersey only has seven harm reduction sites throughout the state,” said Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle (D-Bergen). “New Jersey needs to get serious about addressing the clear gaps in our public health infrastructure that leave our loved ones battling addiction without the resources that they need to lead healthy lives.”
Studies show that Harm Reduction Centers are effective and beneficial for public health. Individuals with access to Harm Reduction Centers are 50 percent less likely to acquire Hepatitis C or HIV and are five times more likely to stop chaotic substance use.
Despite the clear benefits of these programs, New Jersey only has a handful of Harm Reduction Centers throughout the state.
“Nearly 30 years of research shows that comprehensive Syringe Service Programs are safe, effective, and reduce overall health costs,” said Axel Torres Marrero, Senior Director of Public Policy and Legal Services at Hyacinth AIDS Foundation. “Harm Reduction Services continue to be an underutilized tool in New Jersey. The current battle against COVID makes Harm Reduction expansion even more urgent, as we are facing the pandemic on top of the existing overdose crisis, rising Hepatitis C infections, and the ongoing HIV Epidemic.”
“Every human being deserves a chance to stay alive and thrive, to have access to humane, modern public health services that are, for many of us, quite literally the difference between life and death,” said Caitlin O’Neill, Director of Harm Reduction Services at New Jersey Harm Reduction Coalition. “I discovered the harm reduction program in Newark at NJCRI in 2008, and the care and services I received there allowed me to begin to care enough about myself to make positive changes. Not instantly, but the notion that my life had value was planted in me there. Yet millions of New Jersey residents still to this day do not have access to a harm reduction program in New Jersey, which is why harm reduction expansion is a moral and public health imperative. No human being is disposable.”
“We applaud this legislation from Senator Vitale and Assemblywoman Huttle,” said Christian Fuscarino, Executive Director of Garden State Equality. “The toll of COVID-19 goes far beyond the virus itself, and this pandemic makes it more critical than ever for us to expand access to harm reduction programs. We lost more of our loved ones, family members, and neighbors to fatal drug-related overdoses in May of this year than in any other month in recorded history. Black and Latinx New Jerseyans, as well as low-paid workers, are among the hardest hit both by the effects of the pandemic and by increased substance use and lack of harm reduction programs. New Jersey urgently needs harm reduction expansion and bold leadership to improve public health across the state, especially for the most vulnerable among us.”