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Using ‘Backpack Outreach,’ New Syringe Exchange Service to Open in Concord, N.H.

white state house with pretty purple flowers
Daniel Barrick, NHPR
The State House in Concord, N.H.

A new syringe exchange service will start in Concord this July with the help of the New Hampshire Harm Reduction Coalition. It will offer drug users a place to dispose of used syringes and receive sterile ones, and provide access to other first-aid equipment and resources for recovery.

Accessible syringe exchange services are an important part of the addiction recovery spectrum, according to Lauren McGinley, executive director of the Coalition.

Syringe exchange services help prevent the spread of illnesses such as HIV, Hepatitis-C, and endocarditis. Participants are five times more likely to enter drug treament than those who don't, according to the  Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“We’re just kind of included in that spectrum of how somebody may begin to take steps toward treatment or recovery options,” McGinley says.

Though some communities may be apprehensive about syringe exchange services, McGinley says most people are open to the idea once they learn about the benefits an exchange offers.

“I look at the service as a very valuable, vetted public health service. With that belief, we enter into communities with full transparency,” McGinley says. “We’re able to tell communities and community partners especially, that we’re coming, that we hope to add to the services that exist already within the community and keep individuals safe.”

McGinley says the Coalition was able to work with the substance use disorder community in Concord to see what services best suited their needs. The Coalition performed backpack outreach, which is what they call their research process of talking with people who would directly benefit from the service. They also worked with various homeless outreach groups to work on accessibility.

“We look to our steering committee to head the way we do the work in their communities, so that we nestle into the way services are delivered to folks instead of existing on the fringe of where services are received by people who use drugs,” McGinley says.

The COVID-19 pandemic drastically changed how the Coalition was operating and the amount of people accessing its services. McGinley says there was a steep increase in the need for care, namely syringe exchanges.

State funds can’t be used to dispose of unsterile syringes or to fund more sterile supplies, so McGinley says the Coalition needs to rely on fundraising efforts.

Like many nonprofits, McGinley says the impact of COVID-19 was extreme. But the isolation and change of routine that came with the pandemic hit the Coalition especially hard.

“I think it will be years of recovery that all of us as service providers will have to band together and kind of wrap around our population,” McGinley says.  

McGinley says New Hampshire received funding to transform how care is delivered to people with substance use disorder. But the impact from the pandemic has been drastic.

“On a good day a transformative statewide plan I think could’ve been implemented well within about five years,” says McGinley. “Then we had a one-and-a-half year set back that probably cost the timeline another five because we’re not just starting over, we’re kind of rebuilding.”

Samantha Coetzee joined the NHPR team in 2020 as a weekend Board Operator and is now NHPR’s News Intern. A senior journalism major at the University of New Hampshire and New Hampshire native, Samantha is also the General Manager of WUNH, UNH’s student-run radio station.

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