New York plans to install overdose drug ‘vending machines’

New York City health officials announced a plan to set up 10 “public health vending machines” that would dispense sterile syringes, overdose medication and other “harm reduction” supplies. to help neighborhoods that have been hit hard by drug overdoses.

The vending machines, which are slated for neighborhoods in all five boroughs, will also carry toiletries and safer-sex kits, according to Michael McRae, acting executive deputy commissioner of the city’s health department. All items in the vending machines will be free, he said, adding that the department hopes to have the vending machines on the street this year.

“It’s really about expanding access to health and wellness services,” he said of the initiative, a $730,000 pilot program seeking up to six entrepreneurs.

The main purpose of the vending machines is to reduce overdoses in the city by increasing the availability of naloxone, a drug that works to quickly reverse the effects of an opioid overdose. “Every four hours there’s an overdose here,” Dr. McRae said. “It’s something that doesn’t allow people to die every hour.”

As they have nationwide, opioid-related deaths in New York City have increased dramatically during the coronavirus pandemic. There were 2,062 overdose deaths in the city in 2020, according to data released last year by the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene – the highest total since the start. reports of overdose deaths in 2000 and over 500 more than in 2019.

“Overdose deaths in New York City are not evenly distributed across the city, with some groups and neighborhoods seeing disproportionate increases,” the nonprofit Fund for Public Health in New York City said last month in a request for information. proposals from organizations interested in leading the project. . The fund, which issued the request on behalf of the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, set January 20 as the deadline for proposals. The health department will award the contracts on January 31.

According to 2020 health department data, overdose deaths among white New Yorkers had declined over the previous three years, while rates among black New Yorkers had increased over the previous year and rates among Latinos had risen for five consecutive years.

Residents of poor black and Latino neighborhoods like Mott Haven in the South Bronx and East Harlem in Manhattan reported the highest rates of unintentional overdose deaths in 2020.

“Structural racism in drug policy and enforcement has been linked to reduced access to services, poorer health outcomes, and increased risk of overdose,” the application states.

The tender identified several neighborhoods as priorities for the machines, including Central Harlem and Union Square in Manhattan, Far Rockaway in Queens, Stapleton in Staten Island and East New York in Brooklyn.

Access to clean needles is important to prevent the spread of HIV and hepatitis C as well as skin and soft tissue infections, Mike Selick, associate director of the National Harm Reduction Coalition, said Thursday.

“We know that access to syringes is effective; it’s just another form of it“, he said in an interview. Syringe access programs are a proven way to reduce HIV infection rates by limiting the reuse of contaminated needles, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Proposals like New York’s are to “make health equipment, equipment and health supplies available to people who need them most, where they already are, on their schedule and schedule, and without stigma or shame,” Sheila P. Vakharia, deputy director for research and academic engagement at the Drug Policy Alliance, said Thursday.

In New York State, people can already get up to 10 clean syringes from pharmacies participating in the state’s expanded syringe access program. But according to Dr Vakharia, many drug users prefer to avoid a face-to-face interaction with a pharmacist, and many pharmacies are closed late at night when drug use is more prevalent and people need supplies the most. sure.

The same goes for access to naloxone, she added. “It’s a drug that should be readily available and accessible to people when they need it most, and it doesn’t hurt if we can make it more readily available.,” she said.

Critics of the proposal have said the vending machines do not solve the most critical problems related to addiction.

“I agree that we can’t ignore the devastating data on drug addiction and overdoses without doing more,” Councilman David Carr, a Staten Island Republican who represents one of the priority neighborhoods in the plan, said Thursday. .

“But I think it’s irresponsible to just put vending machines full of syringes and Narcan in neighborhoods, without giving drug addicts the real support and assistance they need,” he added, making reference to a brand name version of naloxone.

But supporters of the plan argue that installing the vending machines is “the smart thing to do”.

“We don’t want it to be any easier to get dirty needles,” said Mr. Selick, of the National Harm Reduction Coalition. “We don’t want it to be easier to get drugs on the street than to get the help, supplies and the right information you need.”