State and local organizations across Connecticut are working to develop and strengthen harm reduction strategies to prevent drug-related deaths and promote education about overdoses and the spread of infectious diseases.
About 692 Connecticut residents died from drug overdoses between January and the first week of July this year, according to the Connecticut Department of Public Health. Last year, there were 1,464 confirmed drug overdose deaths.
“The real best practices for harm reduction are found when you go out into the community and understand what the people you are trying to help save need…while connecting them to services and resources that are valuable to the people you are helping. Connecticut said Mark Jenkins, founder and CEO of the State Harm Reduction Coalition.
“The idea is to listen to their needs and meet those needs. This is not a cookie cutter.”
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration defines harm reduction as a set of community-based public health strategies that work with people who use drugs to prevent overdose, reduce the spread of infectious diseases, and empower people who use drugs to improve their well-being.
Services can include educating individuals about overdose and the spread of infectious diseases, as well as dispensing medication use basics such as clean needles and syringes. These strategies can significantly prevent drug-related deaths and increase access to health care, social services, and treatment.
Harm reduction is often associated with drug addiction; however, Jenkins said harm reduction services are a “laundry list” that can be many things for many people. Jenkins compared harm reduction to wearing a seat belt while driving, using a life preserver at sea or having a designated driver before a night out drinking with friends.
Jenkins said the core of harm reduction is having multiple contacts with at-risk people without judgment or expectation that they will eventually be treated.
For example, the Alliance’s harm reduction services include helping individuals meet other needs, such as appropriate housing and nutritious food. By meeting those needs, Jenkins said, this can help reduce barriers associated with basic daily living.
Jenkins also stressed that strategies to reduce the harm of addiction should be developed without any expectation of an individual recovering. Addiction services and treatment are successful for a small number of people, he explained.
So I explained instead that harm reduction “finds ways and means that ensure you are using safe methods to help reduce or prevent overdose deaths.”
According to the Connecticut Harm Reduction Coalition website, the coalition helps provide services to more than 3,500 people across the state.
The coalition’s services include overdose prevention training, drug treatment referrals, syringe exchanges, HIV and hepatitis C screenings and housing referrals. The coalition also regularly distributes free naloxone, fentanyl test strips, wound care supplies, condoms and food to its Hartford and New Haven offices and mobile outreach units.
“We are a social justice movement. Our focus is education,” Jenkins said.
Marie Buchelli, manager of tuberculosis, HIV, STD public health services for the state Department of Public Health, said that at the state level, there are several new harm reduction initiatives to ensure that when looking for harm reduction equipment, “ Wrong Door” and the viral hepatitis section.
To reduce the risk of human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), harm reduction means teaching about the risk of blood-borne infections from using contaminated needles to inject drugs, how to care for injection wounds and providing access to HIV and Opportunity screening of hepatitis. They also distribute condoms and provide education on how to use them adequately, she added.
Likewise, the Ministry of Public Health announced that new vending machines that address harm reduction needs, such as Narcan, will be launched in late August.
Buccelli explained that the department works with local organizations to place and stock vending machines outside. The goal of vending machines is to provide essential supplies around the clock and not be monitored.
Ramon Rodriguez-Santana, epidemiologist for the state AIDS Prevention Program, said the department is also expanding its services through harm reduction “mobile stations.” He described the rover as a toolbox with giant wheels that can carry different items to reduce damage. The rover provides damage reduction units with more mobility and allows them to extend their coverage as it can operate over rough terrain such as sand and wood.
The Connecticut Harm Reduction Coalition has similar rovers at community locations throughout New Haven. Their rover has supplies such as xylazine test strips, naloxone and fentanyl test strips.
Rodriguez-Santana added that harm reduction efforts often create a network between clients and staff with an open-door policy, allowing clients to feel free to reach out when they need help.
“We don’t just provide services to people who inject drugs. We also provide services to drug users and sex workers … to reduce their harm,” Rodriguez-Santana said. “Whenever they are ready to change their behavior, we bring them online so we can easily help them navigate what can sometimes be a difficult system.”
Dr. Jody Terranova, deputy secretary of the state Department of Public Health, frequently visits the Hartford and New Haven harm reduction sites. She described the staff on site as “engaged and enthusiastic” every time they tried to assist live customers, answer any questions they had and provide them with immediate assistance in any form.
From handing out snacks to helping with open wounds, staff at harm reduction sites are willing to listen and educate clients about their situations, Terranova said.
“Let individuals know that someone cares about them and understand that even if they choose to do something now that is not in their best interest, we will be there to help you make a change when you are ready,” Terranova said.
Health equity reporter Cris Villalonga-Vivoni is a corps member for Report for America, a national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms. You can contact them at firstname.lastname@example.org and 203-317-2448. Support the Record-Journal’s RFA journalists with a donation at https://bit.ly/3Pdb0re.