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Despite shortages, syringe exchanges continue to get safe supplies to participants

Jillian Forstadt
The Prevention Point site in Johnson City displays its inventory on a board outside its rear entrance. Emily England, who manages the site, says more popular syringes, like thinner short-tips, are running out more quickly this year than in years past

Syringe exchange programs throughout New York are having to ration supplies. In recent weeks, the state’s Department of Health has sent far fewer syringes than they did earlier in the pandemic.

Prevention Point in the Southern Tier allows people who use needles to dispose of them safely in exchange for new ones. It’s part of the Southern Tier AIDS Program, or STAP.

Prevention Point’s goal is to keep people from reusing or sharing syringes. Doing so can increase the spread of blood-borne diseases, like HIV or hepatitis C.

“When you don’t have as much supplies, you get nervous that those things might start to creep up and increase again,” said Emily England, who oversees harm reduction services at STAP and the Prevention Point site in Broome County.

Syringe exchanges rely on the New York State Department of Health and the Foundation for AIDS Research for supplies. The Department of Health funds the programs and manages equipment orders. England said back in November, the agency started to reduce the number of syringe cases they sent to Prevention Point’s Johnson City office, which sees between 25 and 30 participants each day.

Last month, Prevention Point ordered 15 cases of syringes, England said. They only received five.

“Sometimes that happens on occasion, but that happened more frequently,” England said. “It got to the point that we realized we were going to have to cut back on the amount that we give to people and we really had to ration our supplies.”

A month later, Prevention Point’s exchange in Ithaca also saw its inventory reduced. England said she’s seen the same thing happen to syringe exchanges throughout the state.

In the eight years England has worked at STAP, she has never seen shortages like the one the organization is facing now. England said that Prevention Point once had the luxury of supplying enrolled participants with as much as they needed. In recent weeks, however, they’ve run out of some of the most popular syringes—typically those that are thinner, which some participants find more comfortable. Prevention Point assesses the need of each participant to make sure they get what they need, but doing so while rationing supplies might mean the participant is offered a different syringe from what they requested, or half the usual amount.

On Thursday, the Department of Health announced it would provide 100 percent of funding to amfAR to support its distribution of clean syringes thanks to “prudent fiscal management” during the pandemic.

“As a result, any previous shortages should now dissipate,” said Department of Health spokesperson Jonah Bruno in a statement. He did not explain how soon the agency will provide exchange programs with new materials, or why that funding was not previously allocated.

Aside from amfAR, there aren’t many sources that offer the supplies syringe exchanges need. England said her organization rarely has spare funds with which they can buy additional items. The Department of Health’s funding and resources are essential to the success of syringe exchanges.

“We need our funding to be able to get supplies and do what we need to do, and when places aren’t able to do that, it affects us,” England said.

Bruno emphasized that it is not linked to COVID-19 vaccine distribution. He said the vaccine requires a different kind of needle from those syringe exchanges give to participants.

Syringes, however, aren’t the only items exchanges offer to decrease the potential risks faced by participants who inject substances. Having sterile water and clean caps, or “cookers” that people use to mix their substances, can also reduce harm, but exchanges are receiving fewer of those, too. England said Prevention Point began handing out water bottles when the supply of sterile water ran out, but not everything can be substituted in the same way.

Prevention Point has since expanded its education efforts so people can learn to reuse needles safely if they find themselves in a situation where it’s the only option. That includes sterilizing syringes with bleach and then carefully washing them out.

“It goes back to the fundamentals of harm reduction—doing whatever we can to reduce harm in whatever way possible,” England explained. “If that’s somebody’s only option, and it’s better than using one or borrowing one from a friend, we’d rather them do that as safely as possible.”

Even without all the supplies they need, England said Prevention Point still operates its syringe-delivery program, which reached participants in Broome, Chemung, Chenango, Cortland, Delaware, Otsego, Tioga and Tompkins counties. It’s one of the primary ways Prevention Point has met its participants since the start of the pandemic.

Operating a syringe exchange in a rural area requires programs like the delivery service, meeting clients where they are to make sure they can access clean syringes. England said the organization will continue to find creative solutions during the pandemic, and any future shortage, never turning anyone away.