Pandemic brings increased risk and decreased access to services for people who inject drugs

Dec. 22, 2021
Young depressed woman portrait outdoors during COVID 19 Pandemic

People who inject drugs are particularly vulnerable to the impacts of major events like pandemics, but there is little research to date that gauges the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on this population.

For a study in the Harm Reduction Journal, CUNY SPH Accessible Care Project Director Yesenia Aponte-Melendez, Associate Professor Pedro Mateu-Gelabert, and colleagues examined how COVID-19 has affected people who inject drugs in New York City across four domains: substance use, risk behaviors, mental health, and service utilization.

As part of a randomized trial to improve access to hepatitis C treatment for people who inject drugs, the authors recruited 165 participants. For this analysis, the authors conducted follow up interviews with a subsample of 106 participants from March 2019 to March 2021. This time period was selected to ensure an equal duration between the pre-COVID-19 and COVID-19 periods to assess the impact of the pandemic.

Compared to the pre-COVID-19 sample, those interviewed during COVID-19 reported higher levels of mental health issues, syringe reuse, and alcohol consumption and greater reductions in syringe-service programs and the use of buprenorphine, a  medication used to treat opioid addiction.

Placing dispensing machines of harm-reduction supplies in communities where people who inject drugs live and increasing secondary exchange, mobile services, and mail delivery of supplies may help maintain access to lifesaving supplies during big events, such as COVID-19, the authors say.

“These findings highlight the need to support people who inject drugs and to expand mobile services to the communities where they live and congregate,” says Aponte-Melendez.

Aponte-Melendez, Y., Mateu-Gelabert, P., Fong, C. et al. The impact of COVID-19 on people who inject drugs in New York City: increased risk and decreased access to services. Harm Reduct J 18, 118 (2021).