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Coronavirus shuts down vital harm-reduction help

Jonathan “Jonny” Martinez is the East Valley Coordinator for the harm reduction program Shot in the Dark, but the coronavirus pandemic has his operation completely shut down. 

The volunteer organization assists participants who need to sustain and protect themselves by accessing clean kits for using and testing drugs.

However, the COVID-19 pandemic has been compounding the issue of getting clean kits and naloxone to unsheltered populations in Mesa.  

“It’s rough seeing people that are at-risk like that and not having the same opportunity that a lot of us have to be in a safe environment,” Martinez said about the participants he works with, many of whom are unsheltered active drug users. “It sucks because there is only so much we can do as a harm reduction organization.” 

The pandemic has completely shut down what the organization calls “fix sites” where participants can test their substances for fatal or harmful additives like fentanyl and cocaine. These sites also offer clean needles to limit the spread of infectious diseases like Hepatitis C and HIV/AIDS. 

Since Arizona went into lockdown in March and began social distancing, those sites have disappeared. 

Martinez said that leading up to Arizona’s stay-at-home order, they gave out extra kits and information to hold participants over until new operations could be planned accordingly. 

The organization shared tips on how to use drugs safely during the pandemic and advised participants to not share their “tools”, referring to pipes and needles used to ingest substances. 

According to volunteer Nick Redna, the organization has been out of operation since mid-March. Before the pandemic, he and other volunteers would make weekly trips around Mesa to deliver kits and other supplies like food and water. 

“We’ve seen people cry. People have told us that someone is alive because of us, because of the NARCAN we gave them. They’re just happy to see us every time,” Redna said. Redna has been sober for over three years after a 10-year addiction to heroin. “We’re all trying to look after each other and take care of each other in that part of the population, the homeless population.”

Since 2017, there have been over 5,000 opioid related deaths and over 40,000 suspected opioid overdose cases in Arizona according to the Arizona Department of Health Services. 

“People are still getting loaded out there … Nothing has really changed in the drug world,” Redna said in response to the pandemic.

This past Sunday, Martinez and Redna made over 60 sandwiches for participants they met on a weekly basis. Both said their unsheltered friends were excited to see them, and some expressed concern on how soon the organization will start up again. 

Martinez explained they plan to go forward with continuing operations in May following Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey’s greenlight to reopen the state. 

“Now we’re going to start giving out water. If Shot in the Dark doesn’t pick back up, we’re going to give out water, at least,” said Redna. “We want to get started as soon as possible.” 

When Martinez met up with participants, he said he got news about how some were able to find shelter and escape the heat, but one man told Martinez about a bad batch of heroin that killed three of his friends. 

“He told me they need fentanyl test kits and that it’s getting scary,” said Martinez. “Once you’re out in the community, you begin to hear horror stories about bad batches and people dying and also what people need, like harm reduction supplies and somebody to be there.”

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