The only syringe service program (SSP) in Ingham County, Michigan, based in the state capital of Lansing, is being forced to reduce services. The SSP, which receives no public funding, is struggling to obtain adequate syringe shipments.
Lansing Syringe Access announced on October 10 that it was canceling service until further notice, stating, “We have not received our shipment of new sharps and are out of supplies.” On October 14 it re-opened service, but cautioned that supplies were very limited. Normally, the program operates three hours a day for two days a week.
Emma Zblewski, a volunteer and board member for the program, explained that six weeks ago, Lansing Syringe Access placed an order with North American Syringe Exchange Network (NASEN), for enough syringes to last a month or two. NASEN offers more affordable prices for syringes than Amazon and other retailers, which is crucial for small programs.
“We’ve done everything we can and still haven’t got our supplies yet.”
“We still have not received our full original shipment; we are not operating at full capacity,” Zblewski told Filter, speaking on October 18. “We put in a back-up order to Amazon and got some supplies in, so we opened and gave out everything we had. But we are nowhere near fully stocked. We’re doing our best to get supplies ready so we can open tomorrow, but it’s definitely not for sure.”
The program remained closed the following day, social media suggested, and still hadn’t received an explanation for the delay of its orginal order. “It’s unclear if this is pandemic shipping issues,” Zblewski said, “or if there’s issues on NASEN’s end, but we’ve done everything we can and still haven’t got our supplies yet.”
Founded in 2019, Lansing Syringe Access is a private, volunteer-run SSP that also distributes naloxone, fentanyl test strips, first aid and safe sex supplies. It previously received a one-year grant from the Michigan’s health department to support efforts addressing the overdose crisis. That grant expired in August 2020, and the prorgram now operates on a donations basis as part of the Salus Center, Lansing’s “only LGBTQIA+ community center.”
“Everyone is a volunteer because they care about the community and think this is an important issue,” Zblewski said. “To be able to adequately serve the needs of the county we would probably need to pay someone or multiple people to work on this at least part-time.”
“If we had more study funding, we can put in larger emergency orders to Amazon or other retailers to keep the supply steady.”
The program recently applied for nonprofit status; if approved, it will begin applying for financial support through grants.
“Part of the major problem right now is we don’t have enough funds to do a replacement order for everything,” Zblewski continued, “and we can’t trust NASEN who is our normal supplier that is the most affordable to deliver our shipments. If we had more study funding, we can put in larger emergency orders to Amazon or other retailers to keep the supply steady.”
SSP are an effective tool for preventing HIV and hepatitis C transmissions. That’s critical: Michigan has about 200,000 people statewide living with hepatitis C, and over 16,000 people living with HIV. SSP also help prevent wounds and skin infections from injection, and help prevent overdose deaths by giving out naloxone and fentanyl test strips. The fact that Ingham County’s only SSP is underfunded and unable to provide its full services therefore put residents at additional risk in multiple ways.
In the last five years, total drug overdose deaths in the county have remained roughly static, with 103 deaths in 2016 and 97 in 2020. About 86 percent of all deaths last year involved opioids, but the specific drugs involved have been changing. Total heroin-involved deaths have declined steadily since 2016, while those involving prescription opioids have fluctuated, but declined overall. Deaths involving fentanyl and its analogues, however, have rapidly increased. Last year, nearly three in four overdose deaths (73 percent) involved these substances, underlining the importance of drug checking.
Demographically, while white people in Ingham County have suffered the most opioid-involved deaths, fewer white residents are dying each year; at the same time, Black residents are dying increasingly with each passing year—a pattern repeated throughout the US.
Photograph by Kastalia Medrano