Needle exchange program concerns some W. Va. city officials

Charleston leaders have raised concerns over dirty needles in public places that are “flipped around like cigarette butts"

By Erin Beck and Lori Kersey
The Charleston Gazette

CHARLESTON, W. Va. — City of Charleston leaders met Monday with officials from the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department to discuss concerns about the health department’s clean needle exchange program.

The meeting at City Hall included Charleston Mayor Danny Jones, Police Chief Steve Cooper, Dr. Michael Brumage, health officer for the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department, and City Councilman Bobby Reishman, who also is a member of the Kanawha-Charleston Board of Health.

Reishman said the meeting was a first step in coming up with solutions to the problem. He said he asked officials to come together for the meeting.

City officials have raised concerns over dirty needles in public places in Charleston. In a recent WSAZ report, city Building Commissioner Tony Harmon said firefighters are regularly encountering needles when they go into vacant buildings. In the same report, Mark Strickland, EMS supervisor for the fire department, said needles in public places are “flipped around like cigarette butts.”

Jones and Cooper did not respond to requests for comment.

“There are [needles], that’s nothing new that happens,” Reishman said. “The issue is how do we eliminate those needles and what do we do to take care of the program and take care of the people.

“I think the question is how do we best go about trying to resolve the problem and make sure there aren’t needles in public places,” he said. “The thing is, Charleston bears an unfair amount of the problem, basically, just because of the facilities that are here.”

Brumage, who also is executive director of the West Virginia Office of Drug Control Policy, said he anticipates that the mayor will propose “action” on the needle exchange program. Charleston does not fund the program, but had to pass an ordinance decriminalizing possession of hypodermic syringes and needles to make way for it.

Brumage was scheduled to speak at a substance-abuse prevention event at Capital High School Monday afternoon. Another speaker said he had been called to the Mayor’s Office. Brumage is the former executive director of the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department and remains health officer until March 1.

Reached after the meeting, Brumage confirmed that the meeting had been about the syringe exchange program.

Brumage said he understands that discarded used needles are a public health hazard, but he added that the city’s needle exchange program has helped hepatitis rates decline.

“The consequence of shutting down the syringe service program will be that hepatitis rates will once again rise, and we will be at risk for an HIV outbreak like was seen in Scott County, Indiana,” Brumage said. “These programs protect not only the people who are using intravenous drugs, but it protects the population at large, since these diseases never stay solely within the intravenous drug user population.”

In 2015, nearly 200 people were diagnosed with HIV in Scott County, Indiana. The outbreak was fueled by the opioid crisis and needle sharing. Public officials had opposed needle exchange programs, which prevent the spread of HIV by reducing needle sharing, on moral grounds.

Needle exchange programs offer free sterile syringes and collect used syringes from injection-drug users, to reduce the spread of blood-borne pathogens, including HIV, hepatitis B and hepatitis C. The health department also offers sexually transmitted infection testing, referrals to treatment and other services for participants.

“We also are working with researchers from Marshall to see how we can improve our needle return rate, which is already at 88 percent,” Brumage said. “We have also been working on establishing a statewide harm-reduction coalition, which is now functional at 16 sites across West Virginia, so people who are using can go someplace other than Charleston to receive clean syringes.”

Brumage said the needle exchange program saw more than 400 people during its busiest day, then began operating twice a week.

He said he expects to appear before the City Council to make a case for the program. He also thanked Jones and Cooper for making time Monday.

“This is a program that is saving lives — preventing neonatal abstinence syndrome and bringing people into recovery,” he said.

More than 100 people have been referred into treatment and some participants receive intrauterine devices, a long-term form of birth control, he said.

“I’ll go by myself to pick up needles, if necessary,” he said.

Copyright 2018 The Charleston Gazette

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