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New York City's safe injection sites are a way to reduce drug overdose deaths, health official says

A bin for dirty needles sits outside of an East Harlem health clinic that provides free needles and other services to drug users on Dec. 1, 2021 in New York City. New York Mayor Bill de Blasio has announced that New York City has opened two overdose prevention centers, the first supervised injection sites for drug users in the nation. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
A bin for dirty needles sits outside of an East Harlem health clinic that provides free needles and other services to drug users on Dec. 1, 2021 in New York City. New York Mayor Bill de Blasio has announced that New York City has opened two overdose prevention centers, the first supervised injection sites for drug users in the nation. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

New York City opened the first safe injection sites in the country a few weeks ago.

Public health officials say the sites — public spaces where people can go to use drugs under medical supervision — are part of the city’s strategy to bring down the number of fatal drug overdoses. Last year, more than 2,000 people died of drug overdoses in New York, the highest number since the city began keeping records 20 years ago.

Dr. Dave Chokshi, New York City’s commissioner of health and mental hygiene, says the sites have served more than 300 people and averted at least 25 overdoses in the first two weeks of operation.

When someone overdoses, staff administers oxygen to help the person breathe and use naloxone to reverse it, he says.

“The fundamental purpose of overdose prevention centers is when an overdose is beginning, when people see that it is starting, people are able to get care immediately,” he says, “in a way that reverses the overdose and that saves lives.”

The facilities are clean spaces that give people a sense of dignity, Chokshi says. The site is supplied with medical equipment and the booths in the consumption room have mirrors so staff can monitor people.

“The fundamental purpose of the sites is to help people to get them connected to care,” he says. “This happens in a number of different ways, but it all routes into trusted relationships that people who run the sites have with the clients that they’re serving.”

The staff informs people about the presence of fentanyl in the drug supply as well as how to test for the substance — and connects clients with treatments for opioid dependency such as buprenorphine treatment, he says.

Having worked with many patients with substance use disorders, Chokshi says treatment is a journey.

“It’s not something that happens overnight for many people,” he says. “But overdose prevention centers start by meeting people where they are and then linking them to the services that they need, whether it’s medical care or social services like connections to housing.”

The overdose prevention sites are located in the same place as doctors who can do HIV and hepatitis screenings and counselors who can help with housing, Chokshi says.

“We have to recognize that these are whole people,” he says, “and often addiction has affected many different domains of their lives.”

These two sites mark the first two publicly recognized overdose prevention centers in the country, but there are more than 100 similar sites operating outside of the U.S. The more than 30 years of research that helped build this model finds that these sites can successfully connect people with broader care, he says.

And the city will keep an eye on whether the centers have any impact on Washington Heights and East Harlem, he says, but there isn’t evidence to suggest that the sites will have a negative impact on the surrounding neighborhoods.

“We do have an existing evidence base, and what it has shown is that overdose prevention centers improve conditions in surrounding neighborhoods,” he says. “They decrease public drug use, they reduce syringe litter in those neighborhoods, and they have neutral to improved effects on crime.”


Julia Corcoran produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Chris BentleyAllison Hagan adapted it for the web.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.