More than 30 years ago, a group of dedicated locals founded the South Jersey AIDS Alliance in Atlantic City to care for our neighbors with HIV/AIDS and curb transmission of the disease in our community. We’ve since expanded to serve much of the region, but our mission hasn’t changed, and Atlantic City remains our home. As a community-based effort with deep roots in the city, we have a special role in providing a number of disparate highly effective interventions to thousands of city residents in need.
In response to Atlantic City residents having some of the highest incidents of HIV/AIDS in the state, the city of Atlantic City took the bold step in 2004 to approve a syringe access program. Established in late 2007, the alliance still operates the syringe access program in Atlantic City.
This program offers clean syringes to a population that rarely accesses social services. Once our initial intake is completed, all participants remain engaged in the program and we are able to provide referrals and linkages to all types of programs outside of the scope of our services. This intake process is performed on an anonymous basis, in compliance with NJ law, to reduce barriers to participation.
As mentioned in the April 13 Press editorial, “Atlantic City needle exchange needs more peers, better location,” a steady drop in new HIV infections has coincided with access to clean syringes. The bottom line is that every time someone comes to a syringe access program, it is one less chance they will get HIV or hepatitis, and one more chance they will get access to drug treatment and properly dispose of their used syringes. While we are not drug treatment providers, we are often the first step towards treatment.
Since 2014, we have also provided program participants with naloxone, the lifesaving overdose medication. In less than four years, we have had 85 reports of naloxone being used by program participants to counteract overdose. These are 85 people who did not die in this historic opioid epidemic, who may not have otherwise been reached.
Working closely with the Atlantic City Police Department, we’ve addressed recent concerns by limiting the number of syringes that each program participant can obtain at a time and increased our street sweeps to look for and safely dispose of discarded needles.
Despite being among the state’s top 10 cities for highest number of HIV/AIDS cases (over 650 residents are living with HIV), Atlantic City has now experienced 10 years of significant decline in new cases. This has not been an accident, but the concerted effort of the community. Our programs only work because we have earned the trust of city residents who come to the alliance. We share coffee, build relationships and steer many difficult-to-reach residents in key moments on the path to stability. When HIV is involved, it is especially urgent that people not slip through the cracks. The virus is an ever-present risk to both personal and public health. Our program is where many residents were first diagnosed, linked to treatment, or brought back into treatment after falling out of service. We have been such a powerful force in curbing new infections because HIV is typically spread by those who have either stopped treatment or never started — these are often the hardest members of the community to reach, but we reach them. It’s the key to the city’s success on this front.
Several years ago, the city and state created a Tourism District that includes the area in which we are located. As the city redevelops, we may no longer be in the best location to provide our services. We are not opposed to a new location, one outside of the Tourism District, but the current plan under consideration by City Council is to rescind the ordinance that allows clean syringe access altogether — not just in the Tourism District, but the entire city.
Like any city, Atlantic City has needs. They cannot be wished away by increasing barriers to lifesaving services. If people close their eyes to the needs of the residents, it will only reverse the progress that the community has fought so hard to achieve. The result would be detrimental to all stakeholders.
We believe there is a better way. We seek to work with City Council and officials from city and state government to find a solution that will allow us to support the growth of the Tourism District without turning our backs on our city’s public health.
Carol Harney, of Marmora, is president and chief executive officer of the South Jersey AIDS Alliance.