Harm reduction in a pandemic

COVID-19 is putting drug users at risk; here’s what local agencies are doing to help protect them

As the coronavirus crisis deepens in Peterborough, local harm reduction efforts have become even more important. That’s because drug users are an at-risk population, and because some of the social distancing measures currently in place may make it harder to use drugs safely. 

Charles Shamess, the interim executive director of PARN — Your Community Aids Resource Network, reminds us that “long-term addiction is an underlying health condition.”

Dylan DeMarsh, the community resource coordinator at PARN, says the people he sees using the harm reduction program may have their health compromised in various ways, including with respiratory illnesses. He says, “[They] don’t have the same access to the healthcare system that people take for granted.” This means drug users may have a higher risk of developing severe cases of COVID-19.  

Social distancing may also put drug users at risk for other reasons. “We’re concerned about the higher risk of overdose if people are more isolated and using alone,” Shamess says. He also worries that social distancing and isolation may make it harder to access sterile syringes and other supplies needed to inject or inhale drugs safely. 

“We don’t want them to reuse equipment, and we don’t want them to share equipment,” Shamess says. “The potential for HIV or Hepatitis C to break out at this time is fairly high.”

To respond to the crisis, PARN is expanding its outreach work and is increasing its home delivery of harm reduction supplies, Shamess says.

An essential service

Harm reduction can save lives, and so local agencies have had to find ways to continue offering their services amid the COVID-19 crisis.

“Our offices are open,” says DeMarsh. He says they have decreased in-office staff and only allow one visitor at a time to encourage social distancing. Screening measures are also in place to detect any visitor who might be displaying symptoms of COVID-19. And all of PARN’s services that aren’t related to harm reduction are now being offered over the phone. “Our office is almost exclusively for our harm reduction program right now,” DeMarsh says. 

At the One Roof Community Centre, staff are still offering harm reduction supplies in addition to the daily takeout meal they are offering. But with their community space closed to guests and volunteers, they’ve had to scale back their hours, coordinator Sarah Fleming says. PARN is helping to make up for that by bringing their harm reduction outreach truck to One Roof every lunch hour. 

Shamess says that PARN will also be providing harm reduction outreach at the temporary shelter space that is set to open this evening at the Peterborough Sport and Wellness Centre.

Unfortunately, the temporary closure of the office at Fourcast, an addiction treatment centre, means one less place to access harm reduction supplies in Peterborough during the crisis. Fourcast is continuing to offer its other programs during the crisis, executive director Donna Rogers told me, with clients often being served over the phone instead of in person. Fourcast is also helping clients to adapt to the new reality of attending recovery support groups online, Rogers said.

A national crisis

Across Canada, COVID-19 is compounding the many health risks that already face people who use drugs. “We have competing public health crises at the moment,” says Dylan DeMarsh of PARN. 

If you want to learn more about the overdose crisis and how the coronavirus pandemic is impacting drug users in Canada, Peterborough Currents recommends this recent episode of the Crackdown podcast.

This article was adapted from a Peterborough Currents email newsletter sent to our subscribers on March 25, 2020. It was lightly edited to fit the new context. To read the original newsletter, click here.


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