As opioid crisis claims more lives, NYC unveils vending machine stocking overdose-reversing naloxone
June 5, 2023
NY Daily News
By Josephine Stratman
From a distance, it looks like a normal vending machine. But a closer look reveals that instead of stocking candy bars and bags of chips, its racks are filled with drug-test strips and the overdose-reversing drug naloxone.
The free public-health vending machine will be unveiled Monday in Brooklyn by the city Health and Mental Hygiene Department — the first such machine in New York City.
The machine, at 1676 Broadway in Ocean Hill-Brownsville, is the city’s latest attempt to beat back a pandemic-fueled drug overdose epidemic that has killed thousands, devastated families and communities and contributed to a lower life expectancy.
“We’re in the midst of an overdose crisis,” city Health Commissioner Ashwin Vasan told the Daily News. “In the city, every three hours, a New Yorker dies from an overdose.”
The vending machine is the first of four slated to come this year, according to the Health Department. The city-funded machine will be available for use 24/7, and all you have to do to access the supplies is punch in your New York City zip code.
In addition to fentanyl test strips and naloxone, which can reverse opioid overdoses, the machine will stock hygiene kits, maxi pads, Vitamin C, first aid kits, wound care kits, COVID-19 tests and supplies to smoke, snort and inject drugs more safely. It won’t include syringes.
The idea behind the machines as a tool to fight the crisis is that they’ll reduce barriers to getting supplies while normalizing harm reduction as an effective public-health strategy, said Toni Smith, New York State director for the Drug Policy Alliance.
“The public-health vending machines are really our attempt to mediate it and to meet people where they are, and do whatever it takes to get lifesaving tools into people’s hands, like naloxone and test [strips] and give people … things so that they can make the choice to stay alive in the wake of a really powerful and growing overdose- and intersecting mental-health crisis,” Vasan said.
In 2021, the last full year for which data are available, there were 2,668 overdose deaths in the five boroughs. That’s up from 2,103 in 2020. Data for 2022 are still being collected, but with 1,370 confirmed overdose deaths in the first half of the year, it’s on track to be the deadliest yet.
Fentanyl was involved in 80% of all overdose deaths. A deadly, highly potent drug, the substance is traditionally used in medical settings. It’s about 100 times more potent than morphine and 50 times more potent than heroin, and it’s contaminated the national drug supply.
The crisis has brought a new sense of urgency for the city to apply harm reduction strategies, which aim to prevent drug-related deaths by supplying treatment and services — instead of pushing policies focused on sobriety.
“We’re not saying that public health vending machines are the be-all, end-all for addressing our overdose crisis,” said Vasan. “It’s one arrow in the quiver.”
The machine is part of Mayor Adams’ mental health plan, released in March. With the plan, the city set a goal of reducing overdose deaths 15% by 2025.
The machines are intended to be placed in neighborhoods most affected by overdose deaths. Brownsville had among the highest rates of overdose deaths in 2021, although East New York is the top affected neighborhood in Brooklyn.
The machine will be operated by Services for the UnderServed, a nonprofit focused on housing and support aid. It is located right outside one of the supportive housing buildings.
“You can see the pain every single day,” said Rebecca Linn-Walton, chief strategy officer for Services for the UnderServed.
“… You can see it more on people’s faces, how much suffering they’re experiencing. It has never been a great experience to be homeless in the streets of New York or anywhere else.
“But I think that the level of pain I’m seeing in people coming into shelters [from being] out on the streets and people coming into treatment is higher.”
The building’s residents have eagerly awaited the machine’s installation, she said, adding that many of them have struggled with drug use.
“This is a crisis that’s affecting everyone we love in our city,” Linn-Walton said.