Barriers to engaging people who use drugs in harm reduction services during the COVID-19 pandemic: A mixed methods study of syringe services program perspectives

Elizabeth J. Austin, Maria A. Corcorran, Elsa S. Briggs, Madeline C. Frost, Czarina N. Behrends, Alexa M. Juarez, Noah D. Frank, Elise Healy, Stephanie M. Prohaska, Paul A. LaKosky, Shashi N. Kapadia, David C. Perlman, Bruce R. Schackman, Don C.Des Jarlais, Emily C. Williams, Sara N. Glick

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Background: Syringe services programs (SSPs) provide critical evidence-based public health services that decrease harms from drug use for people who use drugs (PWUD). Many SSPs have experienced significant and evolving COVID-19-related disruptions. We aimed to characterize the impacts of COVID-19 on SSP operations in the United States approximately one year into the pandemic. Methods: Participating sites, selected from a national sample of SSPs, completed a semi-structured interview via teleconference and brief survey evaluating the impacts of COVID-19 on program operations. Data collection explored aspects of program financing, service delivery approaches, linkages to care, and perspectives on engaging PWUD in services one year into the pandemic. Interview data were analyzed qualitatively using Rapid Assessment Process. Survey data were analyzed using descriptive statistics and triangulated with qualitative findings. Results: 27 SSPs completed study-related interviews and surveys between February 2021 – April 2021. One year into the pandemic, SSPs reported continuing to adapt approaches to syringe distribution in response to COVID-19, and identified multiple barriers that hindered their ability to engage program participants in services, including 1) isolation and decreased connectivity with participants, 2) resource restrictions that limit responsiveness to participant needs, 3) reduced capacity to provide on-site HIV/HCV testing and treatment linkages, and 4) changing OUD treatment modalities that were a “double-edged sword” for PWUD. Quantitative survey responses aligned with qualitative findings, highlighting increases in the number of syringes distributed, increases in mobile and home delivery services, and reductions in on-site HIV and HCV testing. Conclusion: These data illuminate persistent and cascading risks of isolation, reduced access to services, and limited engagement with program participants that resulted from COVID-19 and continue to create barriers to the delivery of critical harm reduction services. Findings emphasize the need to ensure SSPs have the resources and capacity to adapt to changing public health needs, particularly as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to evolve.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number103825
JournalInternational Journal of Drug Policy
StatePublished - Nov 2022


  • COVID-19
  • Harm reduction
  • Patient engagement
  • Syringe services programs

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Medicine (miscellaneous)
  • Health Policy


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