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Healthcare

At overdose prevention sites, people can use illegal drugs under medical supervision

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

New York City is now home to two Overdose Prevention Centers where people can use illegal drugs such as heroin under staff supervision. They are the first of their kind to be authorized in the United States. From member station WNYC, Caroline Lewis takes us to the center in Harlem.

CAROLINE LEWIS, BYLINE: On a Wednesday afternoon, a few people are hanging out outside the center. One guy agrees to talk to me as long as it's anonymous since he's sharing details about his illegal drug use. He's homeless and says he's overdosed five times shooting his preferred mix of heroin and cocaine.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: I do want to clean up my life because I don't want to die. It's just - been doing it so long I don't know anything else.

LEWIS: He says he feels safer using here, at one of the two Overdose Prevention Centers the nonprofit OnPoint NYC has opened in Manhattan. But he says this is more than just a place to use drugs.

UNIDENTITIED PERSON #1: They help you with other resources, like help you get into detox. They help you with a place to go if you need to shower or use hygiene.

LEWIS: Inside, the drop-in center is buzzing with activity. Some people are watching TV or socializing. Others linger at the back of the room.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: I got two people waiting and then you, OK? I got you.

LEWIS: They're waiting for their turn to go into the back room where they can take the drugs they brought with them. More than 370 people have registered to use the centers in Harlem and Washington Heights since they opened on November 30. But not everyone qualifies.

KAILIN SEE: Generally, the No. 1 criteria is you have to have a previous history of drug use.

LEWIS: That's Kailin See, senior director of programs at OnPoint NYC. She says once people are enrolled, staff try to make them feel as comfortable and safe as possible.

SEE: They're given a sterile hot towel to promote vein health and to really bring those veins up. And it's also just - it just feels nice. It's cold. You know, people love them.

(SOUNDBITE OF PEOPLE CHATTERING)

LEWIS: In the back room, music plays as clients and staff talk among themselves. Clients prepare their drugs at tables separated by wooden dividers. Picture the carrels at a library but with mirrors that make it easier for staff to watch for signs of an overdose. Trays of clean needles, cookers and other drug paraphernalia are set up alongside oxygen and the overdose reversal medication naloxone.

In the first two weeks of operation, staff at this location and its sister site intervened in 43 overdoses that could have otherwise been fatal. So far, staff haven't had to call 911, avoiding potentially costly medical care.

SEE: Because we are there the minute, the second the substance hits the system, we're able to prevent the loss of consciousness usually with just oxygen.

LEWIS: This site in Harlem employs a nurse and a care coordinator. But the other location relies on a staff of trained peers, mostly people who are still active drug users themselves. The goal is to collect data and compare the two models.

SEE: The objective here is to essentially hand over a blueprint to the rest of the country to support the standing up of these sites in other jurisdictions.

LEWIS: Organizations around the country have contacted OnPoint NYC to say they want to follow in their footsteps. But not everyone is excited about this model.

NICOLE MALLIOTAKIS: Well, I'm opposed to the heroin injection site because I believe it is only encouraging and enabling people who have this addiction.

LEWIS: That's Congresswoman Nicole Malliotakis. She and other New York Republicans introduced a bill in Congress that would prevent any organization that runs an overdose prevention center from receiving federal funds even if they're not using that money for the overdose program itself. She also wrote a letter to the U.S. attorney general urging him to shut them down.

Protests have popped up in Harlem, where some residents say drug programs only attract more drug users. Some say they support the centers in theory, but don't want them in their backyard.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: We are not going to settle.

(APPLAUSE AND CHEERING)

UNIDENTIFIED PREOTESTER: It's over. Take the program somewhere else.

LEWIS: But leaders of OnPoint NYC say the sites help eliminate the kind of public drug use neighbors are worried about. The man who spoke to me about his drug habit outside the Overdose Prevention Center in Harlem said he used to shoot up wherever he could.

UNIDENTITIED PERSON #1: I would do it in front of a cop if I could. I don't care. I would shoot up anywhere. But now, I only do it here when I can.

LEWIS: New York City's incoming mayor, Eric Adams, has said he supports the Overdose Prevention Centers, meaning more could open in the future.

For NPR News, I'm Caroline Lewis in New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF MANANA SONG, "FAST DAYS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.