Are supervised injection facilities the key to curb overdose crisis?

Are supervised injection facilities the key to curb overdose crisis?

We’ve seen the tragic spike in coronavirus deaths in Georgia during the pandemic. But here’s another troubling trend you may not know: drug overdose deaths are also soaring.

Fentanyl overdose deaths are up 61%, heroin overdose deaths are up 32% and opioid deaths are up 25%. Could so-called “supervised injection facilities” curb overdose deaths and costly trips to the hospital?

Channel 2’s Tom Regan took a close-up look at a controversial prescription to the crisis.

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Instead of shooting heroin on the street, Laurie Ackland stops by a medical clinic where she takes a supervised dose of pharmaceutical-grade heroin.

She says as she works to get off the drug, this vastly reduces her risk of going to the hospital or dying from an overdose.

“This has stabilized my life. I would be dead, I would be divorced, I would be a statistic,” Ackland told Regan.

The government-run program in Vancouver, Canada has gotten the attention of drug treatment experts in the U.S. But here, the idea is not to provide heroin to addicts but to monitor their drug use at safe injection sites.

“People are able to use drugs inside a medically supervised environment under the supervision of nurses and other medical staff,” said Brandon Marshall, an Associate Professor of Epidemiology at Brown University School of Public Health.

Marshall reviewed a new study conducted by the Institute for Clinical and Economic Review on the impact a safe injection site could have in a half dozen U.S. cities, including Atlanta.

The study calculated both lives-saved and money-saved in health care costs.

“One site in Atlanta could save the city about $3.6 million annually,” Marshall said.

Those savings would come as a result of:

  • 773 fewer ambulance rides for drug overdoses.
  • 551 fewer emergency room visits
  • 264 fewer hospitalizations

“This is particularly important in an era of COVID when we want to avoid burdening our health care systems with unnecessary emergency room visits and hospitalizations,” Marshall said.

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The idea of drug addicts gathering at safe injection site might have many worried the neighborhood would turn into a crime-infested mess. But Marshall says the study concluded the opposite.

“So what the research found it that when these sites opened in cities, there’s actually a reduction in drug related disorder, public injecting, injection related litter,” Marshall said.

Dr. Mojgan Zare runs the Atlanta Harm Reduction Coalition. A key part of their outreach to drug addicts is a needle exchange. It curbs the the spread of HIV, hepatitis, and other diseases that come from contaminated hypodermic needles.

She says a safe injection site in Atlanta would swiftly reduce overdose deaths and get more people on a path to recovery.

“We have to take, you know, the tools we have available to us and new approaches in addressing this issue, because the approach that we’ve been using in the past is obviously not working,” Zare told Regan.

Georgia legalized needle exchanges in 2019 but allowing safe injection sites is a step many lawmakers are reluctant to take. Channel Two Action News reached out to several Georgia legislators for comment, but none responded.

“It’s not been put formally before us for consideration but at the point that it is, we’ll take advantage of having Emory University right in our backyard, Morehouse School of Medicine, along with all our other partners that we work with as it relates to providing social services with people who are struggling with addiction,” Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms said.

Marshall says drug addicts will use drugs with or without a safe injection program. He argues why not do in a way that helps those addicted and everyone affected by that addiction.

“I think, again, to speak anecdotally to the power of these sites in saving lives and helping get folks to that point where they can start to imagine themselves in treatment and long-term recovery,” Marshall said.

In addition to Canada, the Netherlands, Germany, Switzerland and Australia all established supervised injection facilities decades ago.

Currently, there are no legally sanctioned facilities in the U.S.

Philadelphia, San Francisco and Denver are currently exploring legislation to allow them.