Brittney Lofthouse – Contributing Writer
North Carolina’s Harm Reduction Coalition (NCHRC) distributed nearly 1 million syringes to 3,500 participants across 17 counties in North Carolina during the 2018-2019 year. Syringe exchange programs (SEPs) provide harm reduction education and resources to people who use drugs and support them by reducing the risk of overdose. NCHRC also offers training and technical assistance to a wide variety of stakeholders about harm reduction, harm reduction programming and policy.
In Macon County, Full Circle Recovery Center, LLC has been part of NCHRC’s program since 2017. Known as “The Circle” the local needle exchange program continues to see an increase in participants.
“If we look at the data from Jan. 1, 2019 to July 7, 2019, you can see we have had the largest increase in helping people who use drugs,” said Stephanie Almeida with Full Circle Recovery Center. “We have 227 new and unique individuals with more than 1,472 total people served. We have distributed 46,220 sterile syringes and received 10,611 used syringes to be disposed of. We have distributed 949 opioid overdose reversal kits and have trained 552 people in how to reverse an overdose. People in our community have reported using an opioid overdose kit to reverse an overdose 54 times.”
Since Jan. 1, 2017, when the program was first started, Almeida reports that the Circle has met 522 new and unique individuals with more than 2,786 total people served.
“We have distributed 92,890 sterile syringes to prevent the transmission of HIV, Hepatitis C and other communicable diseases,” she said. “People who use our program have returned more than 17,227 used syringes to be disposed of. The myth that all people who use drugs do not care about themselves or their communities is a way to perpetuate stigma and further keep people down. We have distributed 2,067 opioid overdose reversal kits and have trained 1,178 people in how to identify and reverse an opioid overdose. People in our community have reported using an opioid overdose kit to reverse an overdose 162 times; that’s 162 people that might have lost their lives if someone didn’t care enough to help them.”
In addition to syringe distribution, SEPs improve public health in local communities by allowing program participants to safely dispose of used and discarded syringes. Data from the North Carolina Division of Public Health’s Injury and Violence Prevention Branch shows a more than 200 percent increase in the number of syringes returned between 2017-2018 (152,783) and 2018-2019 (385,217).
In addition to the success of NCHRC SEPs, data shows that the 30 SEPs operating in the state distributed more than 3 million syringes and provided services to participants in 71 counties (this includes participants from Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians/Tsalagi territory, Georgia, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, Texas, Ohio, and Florida).
“No longer are we talking about an opioid epidemic…or even a pandemic,” said Almeida. “We’re now talking about a syndemic-HIV, Hepatitis C, and Opioid Overdose. The services our staff provides to people who use drugs are crucial to stop the opioid syndemic we are currently experiencing. By providing free and confidential services such as HIV and Hepatitis C testing services, anonymous syringe exchange and supplies, opioid overdose prevention and reversal kits, clothing closet and food pantry, condoms, recovery support, and referral to substance use treatment and HIV/Hepatitis C treatment to the seven western counties, we are part of the solution and often the first door they step through that they are not judged because of their substance use.”
The success of NCHRC’s SEPs would not be possible without the dedication of program participants. People who use drugs are the most important stakeholders in harm reduction. Their lived experiences and expertise should shape how communities design and implement harm reduction programming.
Almeida said Full Circle Recovery’s education outreach is an important component to the overall mission of the organization.
“We also provide free training about a variety of topics from HIV/Hep C 101 to signs and symptoms of substance use to community members, service providers, parents or anyone just wanting more information about what is going on.” said Almeida. “We provide as well as the ‘Any Positive Change’ support group for people who use drugs (abstinence is not required to attend) and the Family Drug Support family support group.”
North Carolina Harm Reduction Coalition (NCHRC) is a statewide grassroots organization dedicated to the implementation of harm reduction interventions, public health strategies, drug policy transformation, and justice reform in North Carolina and throughout the American South. NCHRC engages in grassroots advocacy, resource and policy development, coalition building, and direct services for law enforcement and people impacted by drug use, incarceration, Intimate Adult work, overdose, gender, HIV and hepatitis.
“Our approach is ‘Any Positive Change’ which was coined by the infamous Dan Bigg of Chicago Recovery Alliance,” said Almedia. “What that means is our program treats people with dignity and respect, regardless if they’re abstinent of substance use, gender or religion/lack of. When we say the coffee is always on, we mean it. Whatever the issue you’re experiencing, we will do our best to sit down with you and figure out which way to turn. You’re never alone.”
For more information about Full Circle Recovery Center, content the office at (828)349-0036.