Like other charities in Tompkins County, the Southern Tier AIDS Program is finding ways to adapt their services in the face of COVID-19.
STAP, which offers HIV testing, needle exchanges and support to at-risk communities, relies heavily on in-person engagement to provide services — a mission that is as important now as ever, according to Executive Director John Barry.
“Isolation is one of those things that breeds problematic drug use,” Barry said, explaining that social support is a critical component in managing drug addiction. “We are certainly concerned.”
As a result, despite stringent social distancing guidelines, STAP administrators have sought to rework services to continue delivering care safely, organizing programs like Zoom classes, home delivery of condoms and outdoor needle exchanges.
“Folks are hoping this won’t go on much longer,” Barry said. “But every day that it does go on, we are developing new tools to reach people.”
While STAP is developing a range of non-contact services, it recognizes the challenge of inequities in technology access among the populations it serves.
“There is a substantial portion of folks that we serve that don’t have easy access to computers, or may not have an internet connection in their home,” Barry said. “It just shows us where the inequities are in our current system.”
The New York State Health Department determined that clean needle exchange is an essential service — a decision that Barry agrees with. Needle exchanges allow individuals addicted to intravenous drugs to exchange their used needles for clean ones in an effort to help reduce the spread of blood-borne illnesses, like HIV.
To minimize the risk of COVID-19 exposure, needle exchange is being conducted outside STAP’s downtown Ithaca center and through home delivery of injection supplies.
“You don’t want to cause an outbreak of another disease when you are in the midst of trying to prevent one,” Barry said.
In keeping with this mission, STAP is also delivering and mailing condoms to people who request them.
While disease prevention through needle exchange continues, STD testing has been halted for the time being. Due to the necessarily contact-heavy nature of STD testing, STAP is currently not providing HIV, hepatitis and other screening services.
However, according to Barry, STAP is currently working with New York State to find a way to deliver counseling for HIV, potentially deploying home test kits and telehealth consultations.
STAP’s housing programs are also considered essential services, so STAP staff continue to work with those who are in or are applying to the program.
“It is quite challenging at this point to get landlords to show you an apartment, but the other really important piece of our housing programs is that we pay a portion of people’s rent. That is continuing,” Barry said.
STAP’s LGBTQ youth center is now offering online hours to continue to connect youth with staff and one another. Other STAP programs, including the re-entry from prison program, are also being transitioned online.
“We have re-entry from prison program. Part of that program is to deliver classes to people, [which] is a cognitive/behavioral intervention that is 15-20 weeks long,” Barry said.
In addition to remote and physically distanced delivery of services, STAP is working to protect the safety of its staff through as much personal protective equipment as it can obtain.
“We were lucky to have a retired staff member sew us a lot of cloth masks, which we lined with disposable paper ones, to give them something. We also had a local company that 3D printed some clear plastic face masks, for staff that are coming in direct contact with people,” Barry said. “For everyone else, we ordered some of the better quality masks, but they haven’t arrived yet.”
While some resources may be delivered differently, Barry still encouraged anyone contemplating whether to begin the recovery process from substance abuse to get started anyway.
“The sooner you get started down the path, the better for all concerned,” Barry said.