Responding to a surge in overdose deaths: Perspectives from US syringe services programs

BACKGROUND: US overdose deaths have reached a record high. Syringe services programs (SSPs) play a critical role in addressing this crisis by providing multiple services to people who use drugs (PWUD) that help prevent overdose death. This study examined the perspectives of leadership and staff from a geographically diverse sample of US SSPs on factors contributing to the overdose surge, their organization’s response, and ongoing barriers to preventing overdose death.

METHODS: From 2/11/2021 to 4/23/2021, we conducted semi-structured interviews with leadership and staff from 27 SSPs sampled from the North American Syringe Exchange Network directory. Interviews were transcribed and qualitatively analyzed using a Rapid Assessment Process.

RESULTS: Respondents reported that increased intentional and unintentional fentanyl use (both alone and combined with other substances) was a major driver of the overdose surge. They also described how the COVID-19 pandemic increased solitary drug use and led to abrupt increases in use due to life disruptions and worsened mental health among PWUD. In response to this surge, SSPs have increased naloxone distribution, including providing more doses per person and expanding distribution to people using non-opioid drugs. They are also adapting overdose prevention education to increase awareness of fentanyl risks, including for people using non-opioid drugs. Some are distributing fentanyl test strips, though a few respondents expressed doubts about strips’ effectiveness in reducing overdose harms. Some SSPs are expanding education and naloxone training/distribution in the broader community, beyond PWUD and their friends/family. Respondents described several ongoing barriers to preventing overdose death, including not reaching certain groups at risk of overdose (PWUD who do not inject, PWUD experiencing homelessness, and PWUD of color), an inconsistent naloxone supply and lack of access to intranasal naloxone in particular, inadequate funding, underestimates of overdoses, legal/policy barriers, and community stigma.

CONCLUSIONS: SSPs remain essential in preventing overdose deaths amid record numbers likely driven by increased fentanyl use and COVID-19-related impacts. These findings can inform efforts to support SSPs in this work. In the face of ongoing barriers, support for SSPs-including increased resources, political support, and community partnership-is urgently needed to address the worsening overdose crisis.

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Full citation:
Frost MC, Austin EJ, Corcorran MA, Briggs ES, Behrends CN, Juarez AM, Frank ND, Healy E, Prohaska SM, LaKosky PA, Kapadia SN, Perlman DC, Schackman BR, Des Jarlais DC, Williams EC, Glick SN (2022).
Responding to a surge in overdose deaths: Perspectives from US syringe services programs
Harm Reduction Journal, 19 (1), 79. doi: 10.1186/s12954-022-00664-y. PMCID: PMC9295104.