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A look at harm reduction efforts in New Hanover County

Camille Mojica
The North Carolina Harm Reduction Coalition offers sterile syringes, surgical gloves and Narcan.

The overdose emergency department visit rate in NC was 161 out of 100,000 people in 2022. This represents nearly 17,000 emergency department visits by NC residents for overdose in that year. Harm reduction efforts have been stigmatized as “enabling” drug use, however, others argue they’re an important tool in fighting the opioid epidemic.

Harm reduction, as defined by Voni Simpson, the North Carolina Harm Reduction Coalition’s Southeastern Regional Program Manager, is a frame work that helps reduce the negative consequences of drug use for people who use drugs or engage in sex work.

Harm reduction efforts around the state look different, Simpson said. In Vance and Granville counties, efforts are focused more on jail-based outreach. In Raleigh and Durham, the coalition has an expansive mobile health clinic. In Cumberland County, Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion is a program that helps low-level offenders access community social resources versus the punitive consequences of drug use.

At 1308 Dock Street, they offer low-barrier services to those struggling with drug addiction in two sections: harm reduction, and connection to services including recovery programs. They offer free HIV, Hepatitis C, and syphilis testing.

"We also offer bus tickets. And we have a couple of community partners. … It's McDonald's. They give us gift cards to give out," Simpson told WHQR.

Camille Mojica
The location at 1308 Dock Street in Wilmington offers low barrier services including free food and free clothes.

When it comes to syringe exchange, Simpson makes clear that it does not entice people to start using drugs. The people they are serving are already using, and it’s a way to keep them safe from blood-borne diseases. People who use, according to Simpson, take care of one another and word-of-mouth remains the main way people come to know of the program. However, the coalition does have outreach workers.

In the past year, according to Simpson, the local New Hanover County-area chapter saw 8,000-plus contacts with clients, with 2,000 or so being unique clients.

When asked about why harm reduction is important, Simpson noted the long-term cost of dealing with chronic illnesses that can come from using dirty needles. Sterile syringes cost about 10 cents each, while the lifetime care of someone who is HIV positive can be up to $750,000 to keep them healthy.

Opponents of harm reduction sometimes question why it should be the system’s obligation to look after those who still continue to use drugs, and refuse treatment.

Simpson said, “I don't think it's an obligation when it's just human to care. It's no different from someone with a long term illness that you're treating. I just look at substance use disorder as a condition.”

Camille hails from Long Island, NY and graduated from Boston University with a BS in Journalism and double minors in Classical Civilizations and Philosophy. Her story focus revolves her deep care for children, young adults and mental health. You can reach her at cmojica@whqr.org.