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A hope that harm reduction will be part of White House xylazine plan

A computer screen shows a bar graph representing weekly opioid overdoses in Onondaga County.
Onondaga County's weekly opioid overdose tallies appear in a bar graph on a computer screen, April 22, 2023.

As the Biden administration is working on a national plan to address the latest threat to emerge from the ongoing opioid crisis, a local public health expert is hoping harm reduction will be a key component.

The CNY region has seen clusters of overdoses tied to fentanyl and xylazine, a tranquilizer typically used by veterinarians that when used by humans can cause skin sores. A spike alert from Onondaga County a couple weeks ago reported 40 overdoses in just 48 hours. A similar alert came earlier in March.

Federal data shows xylazine-positive overdoses increased 100% in the northeast from 2020 to 2021, and even higher rates across the country. Now the White House’s head of drug control policy is crafting a plan to address the fentanyl-xylazine cocktail threat.

Alexandra Punch, director of the Lerner Center for Public Health Promotion and Population Health at Syracuse University, said she hopes that includes an emphasis on harm reduction, like safe consumption sites.

“The intent of them right is to allow the individual to use their drug under the supervision of a doctor or a nurse, and that is really only one of the only ways that you can actually mitigate mortality related to drug use and it also serves as a really wonderful conduit to care,” said Punch, also member of the Onondaga County Drug Task Force. She said a strategy that doesn’t work is regulation.

“[Regulation] hasn’t solved the problem in a century,” she said.

The federal Office of National Drug Control Policy is creating a team to develop a crisis response plan. A White House news brief said this will include strategies for xylazine testing, treatment and supportive care protocols, as well as strategies to curb the illegal flow of xylazine.

Dr. Rahul Gupta, who leads the Office of National Drug Control Policy, has been meeting with government officials and first responders about addressing the opioid-xylazine surge. This week he met with agencies in Philadelphia.

Tarryn Mento is an award-winning digital, audio and video journalist with experience reporting from Arizona, Southern California, Guatemala and the Dominican Republic. Tarryn produces in-depth and investigative content for WAER while overseeing the station's student reporter experience. She is also an adjunct professor at Syracuse University.