AIDS committee, pharmacies team up to dispense safe injection supplies in western Newfoundland
Partnership reducing the risk of harm to people who use injection drugs
A partnership between the AIDS Committee of Newfoundland and Labrador and some pharmacies in Western Newfoundland is proving to be very beneficial, enabling more people in the region who use injection drugs to get the safe supplies they need.
The AIDS committee's Safe Works Access Program, or SWAP, provides kits that include things like syringes, sterile water and tourniquets to ensure that people who use drugs don't share or reuse syringes and, as a result, run the risk of contracting blood-borne infections.
The program has mail-out and delivery options, but its hours of operation are limited compared with pharmacies.
That's why the committee's Jessica Rex jumped at the opportunity when pharmacist Chris Randell of the Medicine Shoppe in Corner Brook suggested in 2018 that he could take some of the kits to hand out.
"It really has made a difference in our communities, especially now during the pandemic," said Rex.
Pandemic moved the needle on drug use
Rex said the reason the partnership has proven particularly useful during the pandemic is that demand for safe injection kits has increased dramatically since March 2020.
In the year the pandemic began, 2020-21, the number of kits handed out rose dramatically, compared with the previous year, and that number continues to increase.
In 2021-22, Rex said, pharmacies in the Western region have already handed out 32,600 syringes, and another 112,135 needles have been distributed in kits through mail-out and delivery. The western office is already closing in on last year's total, with more than two months to go until the end of the fiscal year.
Isolation and unemployment are taking a toll on people and drug use has risen as people struggle to cope, she said, Her goal and that of the pharmacists involved in handing out kits is simply to reduce harm.
Request for syringes was a tip-off
Chris Randell of the Medicine Shoppe said he just wanted to keep people from getting hurt.
"Most of these people that come in, they all have their own stories, their own reasons, and we want to make sure that we're there to hand them out stuff that is going to provide them with a much safer environment," said Randell.
Randell first picked up on the need in Corner Brook when clients at his pharmacy inquired about buying diabetic syringes, which most people with diabetes no longer use as pre-filled insulin pens are now more the norm.
When he heard about the SWAP kits, Randell said, he immediately wanted to help with harm reduction.
Since the Medicine Shoppe in Corner Brook got involved, nearly every other pharmacy in the city has partnered with the AIDS committee to also offer the SWAP kits.
And pharmacies in Stephenville, Stephenville Crossing and Bonne Bay are making the kits available, too.
No judgment, just help
Randell said he's also started stocking opioid overdose reversal kits, commonly referred to as Naloxone, which are now available free at his pharmacy.
He said he also often has an opportunity to have discussions and provide education to clients on things like the dangers of using drugs alone or about tainted substances that are showing up on the streets.
"I've had people come in and thank us for being non-judgmental and providing such a service to the community," said Randell.
Rex said research has shown that having access to safe injection supplies doesn't encourage or increase drug use but encourages and increases safer drug use.
Rex said the AIDS committee would like to see the partnership with pharmacies continue to expand.
She said the organization's St. John's office has begun to partner with some pharmacies in its area as well to offer SWAP kits.