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The United States' first overdose prevention centers have opened in New York City in the Manhattan neighborhoods of East Harlem and Washington Heights.
People will be able to bring their drugs and use them under the supervision of trained staff members who will provide clean needles, prevent overdoses and offer connections to addiction services to those who are interested, city officials said.
Cities and states nationwide have pushed for overdose prevention sites in recent years as the nation's opioid epidemic has worsened.
"If you think about a public health response to a crisis and you want to triage people to stop it, this is one intervention most likely to do that," Caleb Banta-Green, principal research scientist at the University of Washington's Addictions, Drug and Alcohol Institute, told NBC News. "They're doing it in much of the world, so we're really kind of late to the game."
Critics argue that such sites would create locations that encourage drug use, but Banta-Green said they stop people from using drugs alone, something that greatly increases the risk of a fatal overdose. Similar programs already in use in Australia, Europe and Canada have already made a dent in fatalities: According to NBC News, overdose prevention sites in Vancouver cut the rate of fatal overdoses there by 35%.
There were more than 90,000 overdose deaths in the United States in 2020, according to the U.S.Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. More than 2,000 of those were in New York City, according to an official statement announcing the new centers.
“The national overdose epidemic is a five-alarm fire in public health, and we have to tackle this crisis concurrently with our COVID fight,” New York City Health Commissioner Dr. Dave Chokshi said in the statement. “Giving people a safe, supportive space will save lives and bring people in from the streets, improving life for everyone involved. Overdose prevention centers are a key part of broader harm reduction."
Visit the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for more on opioids.
Robert Preidt and Robin Foster
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