‘Harm reduction’ health care vans now in several NJ counties
⚫An Asbury Park-based mobile harm reduction unit rolls out to other towns
⚫The goal is to provide stigma-free compassionate access to health care
⚫Folks can safely access naloxone, sterile syringes, and other supplies
ASBURY PARK — The Prevention Resource Network’s Harm Reduction Center based in Asbury Park, is a program of the Visiting Nurses Association’s Children and Family Health Institute and the VNA of Central Jersey.
It is now proud to announce that its mobile harm reduction center is active and operating in eight Monmouth and Ocean County municipalities, including Asbury Park.
What is the purpose of the mobile harm reduction unit?
The mobile unit gives individuals stigma-free compassionate access to health care, enabling people who use substances to safely access naloxone, sterile syringes, and other safer-use supplies.
But, syringe access is a small part of what the unit offers, said Shannon Preston, director of HIV Community Services at VNA Health Group.
“The mobile unit is a gateway to safer usage, preventing disease transmission, overdose prevention strategies, social service and health care referrals, and support and guidance when and if someone is ready to enter treatment,” Preston.
The mobile unit also provides free Narcan, fentanyl and xylazine testing strips to reduce overdose deaths, she added.
The mobile harm reduction center is also available to those affected by substance use, enabling family and friends to be proactive in someone’s health care, Preston said.
The idea is for the unit to go into the community to provide services instead of people coming to the harm reduction center.
What is the purpose of PRN?
The Prevention Resource Network is the first new harm reduction site authorized in about five years, but it’s not the only harm reduction site in New Jersey and most likely won’t be the last, said Cole Zaccaro, manager of Harm Reduction Services at Prevention Resource Network.
The State Department of Health has made a larger commitment to expand this life-saving harm-reduction work. It is in the process of authorizing new harm reduction sites in real-time throughout the state, they said.
Some of those will be mobile. Others will be brick-and-mortar sites, they added.
So far in 2023, the Prevention Resource Network has seen 131 suspected fatal overdoses in Monmouth County and 161 suspected fatal overdoses in Ocean County, Zaccaro said.
Where can the mobile unit be found?
Harm reduction services continues to be provided five days a week at its fixed site in Asbury Park. It has now launched in eight Monmouth and Ocean County municipalities. In Ocean County, the harm reduction unit can be seen out and about in Brick and Toms River. In Monmouth County, it is in Long Branch, Eatontown, Keansburg, Keyport, Red Bank, as well as roaming out and about in its hometown of Asbury Park.
Why were these specific towns chosen?
In choosing which towns to prioritize, the Prevention Resource Network Harm Reduction Center looked at data town-by-town on the number of people seeking residential treatment for opioid use, as well as crack cocaine and methamphetamine use, Zaccaro said.
“We really prioritized the towns that have the highest rates of folks seeking treatments and the highest rates of on that need,” they added.
The harm reduction team went out into those communities and conducted “boots on the ground” outreach. They spoke directly to prospective clients in the towns that they were considering for the mobile sites, to talk about the needs and their communities, and where services are critically needed, Zaccaro said.
How will the mobile harm reduction unit help people?
The mobile unit will hopefully remove a lot of critical barriers to accessing health care and prevention services, especially for people who either don’t have transportation to access the Asbury Park site, or folks who are reluctant to seek services in more traditional health care settings because of stigma they’ve experienced in those types of settings in the past, Zaccaro said.
The work of the harm reduction mobile unit also saves lives.
“It prevents fatal overdoses. That doesn’t just impact the individual whose life is saved, but also has deep impacts on their friends, families, loved ones, and entire communities,” Zaccaro said.
This work also reduces the burden of preventable, transmittable diseases like HIV and Hepatitis C.
“We have long since had the tools to prevent transmission of those diseases and getting those reverses in the hands of the folks most at risk, will reduce the burden of those diseases on our community as a whole,” Zaccaro said.
The unit also provides a lot of resources to keep people safe, alive and well amid chaotic substance use. That includes providing an easy method for people to safely dispose of used syringes so they can be wasted appropriately, rather than discarded in community spaces, they said.
It’s important to remember that by improving an individual’s health, you’re improving the healthcare of an entire community, and increasing that community’s access to healthcare, Preston said.
How is the mobile unit being funded?
The mobile unit is funded by the State Department of Health, Division of HIV, STD and TB Services. They also received state opioid funding through that funding source, Preston explained.
Starting in 2024, there will be an RN on the unit who will assist individuals with on-site wound care, and rapid testing for Hepatitis C, HIV, and other sexually transmitted infections. Preston also said the RN can provide general health referrals and assessments to healthcare agencies when necessary.
Both Zaccaro and Preston said the mobile harm reduction unit has already had a huge impact on individual lives and on the overall well-being of the communities.
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Gallery Credit: Erin Vogt