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Pioneering safe injection sites in NYC have so far saved at least 59 lives. Will Boston be next?

"I think when the medical and health professionals say this saves lives, we have to come down on the side of saving lives."

Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff
The opioid crisis

Late last month, New York City took a pioneering step for a U.S. city in its fight against drug overdose deaths: It opened two safe injection sites.

The facilities — one in East Harlem and one in Washington Heights — allow individuals to use illicit substances with clean needles provided and in close reach of medical professionals, who can use overdose-reversing naloxone to save lives. Users are also provided with options for substance abuse treatment, according to The New York Times.

Since their launch, the two sites have already reversed at least 59 overdoses and have been used over 2,000 times, the city’s Health Department said on Tuesday.

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“We are meeting people who use drugs where they are in their life journey to support them in building their self-worth,” Sam Rivera, executive director of OnPoint NYC, said in a statement. “In celebrating life, we are humanizing people often not treated as human.”

The bold actions in the nation’s most populated city come as Boston is undertaking renewed efforts at the epicenter of the region’s own battle with the opioid epidemic, better known as Mass. and Cass.

A longtime supporter of the safe injection site idea, Mayor Michelle Wu, asked on GBH’s “Boston Public Radio” on Wednesday about the initiative in New York, suggested she remains open to bringing the model to Boston.

“I think when the medical and health professionals say this saves lives, we have to come down on the side of saving lives,” she said.

Last week, Wu announced an updated timeline and plan to address the encampments at the troubled intersection, a crossroads of the crises of addiction, mental health, and homelessness.

People living unsheltered in the area have until Jan. 12 to be connected to temporary housing and other services, under Wu’s plan. The mayor’s office said the goal is to help people transition to supportive living environments and “promote safety” in the surrounding neighborhoods.

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In those plans is a city partnership with Boston Medical Center that will, in part, offer a “stabilization care center” at the Roundhouse Hotel with “dedicated chairs/beds for managing withdrawal and intoxication,” according to a presentation given to local residents reported by The Boston Herald earlier this month.

Unlike in New York, individuals will not be able to take drugs there, but they can come down from a high with medical supervision and they can be connected with services they need.

The effort in New York is the first of its kind in the country, likely because, even beyond the local and ethical debates typically attached to the idea, such an operation remains illegal under federal law.

In 2019, the Trump-era Justice Department filed a lawsuit to block a facility from opening in Philadelphia. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit upheld the law earlier this year.

New York City Health Commissioner Dr. Dave Chokshi told the Times last month the city has had “productive conversations” with federal and state officials, adding that he believes the sites would be allowed to function because of “a shared sense of urgency” about the drug epidemic.

Justice Department officials declined to comment to the newspaper when asked if they would step in.

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On Monday, the New York City Board of Health, by an unanimous vote, urged the state and federal governments to support the centers and other forms of harm reduction.

“These data are promising and show how Overdose Prevention Centers will reduce needless suffering and avoidable death,” Chokshi said in a statement regarding the overdoses reversed in the city so far. “The simple truth is that Overdose Prevention Centers save lives — the lives of our neighbors, family and loved ones.”

The concept has been considered in Massachusetts for years, particularly as the opioid crisis continues to keep a stranglehold on New England.

A state report released last month showed over 1,600 people died of opioid overdoses in the first nine months of 2021 — an estimated 21 more people than those who died in the same period last year.

Former U.S. Attorney for Massachusetts Andrew Lelling, appointed by former President Donald Trump, vowed to enforce federal laws against any safe injection site that opened in the state under his tenure.

Incoming, Biden-appointed U.S. Attorney Rachael Rollins has not explicitly said whether she would allow such sites once she’s in office, but Rollins came out in support of the idea while serving as the Suffolk County district attorney in 2019.

State lawmakers, meanwhile, are considering a 10-year pilot program that would allow for two sites in the commonwealth. Somerville officials also indicated this year they want their city to be the first to host one of those kinds of facilities under their own plan.

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On the radio Wednesday, Wu was asked whether she had plans to pursue safe injection sites in Boston.

“We’re taking action right now to focus on tackling the root causes at Mass. and Cass of finding supports and wraparound services for low-threshold housing that is supportive of individuals who are experiencing substance abuse,” she said. “This is a new model that we are trying and so, if we see the results that I believe we will and that I hope we will, that will be a huge step forward.”

The mayor stopped short of making mention of any specific plans to pursue a safe injection facility, though.

“Whatever we are doing across the city, harm reduction has to be part of that,” she said. “That is how we help support folks on their pathway to recovery.”

The “new model” Wu mentioned includes low-threshold supportive housing environments, with two sites planned at hotels and a third at the Shattuck Hospital campus.

One of those sites, the Roundhouse Hotel near Mass. and Cass, will house 60 people, with Boston Medical Center providing 24/7 staff and case management and stabilization services aimed at helping individuals recover and transition to permanent housing.

The Roundhouse plan, as reported by the Herald, has received substantial pushback from South End and Roxbury residents and business leaders who contend the area is over-saturated with homeless, addiction, and mental health services.

And though it is not the same as a safe injection site, the model will still make history in the commonwealth, Wu indicated.

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Wu called the plan the “most medically intensive program that exists in Massachusetts, connecting folks on the ground floor, who need immediate triage and support and harm reduction, with housing units above so that people can be immediately connected and stabilized.”

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