An effort largely aimed at stemming the spread of HIV and hepatitis C still is in action during the pandemic in the form of the state's clean syringe access program.

The community-based programs provide access to sterile syringes, needles and other injection equipment at Harm Reduction Centers, where clients can exchange used syringes and leave with new, sterile ones, as explained on the state Department of Health website.

Hyacinth AIDS Foundation Senior Director of Policy and Prevention Axel Torres Marrero said while the syringe exchange is scaled down from the normal program, they still have maintained a presence in Paterson, Jersey City and Trenton, with three hours a week of availability.

He said their workers have been able to use protective personal gear and sanitize their mobile work space to minimize transmitting the novel coronavirus between staff and clients.

Marrero said the remaining Harm Reduction Centers that are also part of the statewide program in Atlantic City, Asbury Park, Camden and Newark, also have maintained limited availability of roughly five hours a week to those looking for clean syringes in those cities.

Along with the rest of the state amid the COVID-19 public health crisis, Hyacinth AIDS Foundation temporarily closed some offices and been working largely remotely since mid-March, Marrero said, but syringe access a mobile service to start with so it adapts well to the circumstances.

The centers have been controversial, as critics believe they encourage or condone drug use.

But, state health officials point to the reduction in HIV and hepatitis C cases, which can spread through shared needles, as well as potentially minimizing opioid overdoses.

As reported by Paterson Press which cited state data, the syringe access program in Paterson alone handed out 62,914 syringes while collecting 59,055 used needles in 2019, for a 94% exchange rate.

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