Needle exchange program to begin in Upshur County

BUCKHANNON — To aid in the prevention of spreading infectious diseases, the Upshur County Health Department is partnering with Milan Puskar Health Right to implement a monthly needle exchange program.

“It has been a work in the making. There are a lot of steps and a lot of aspects to it,” said Sue McKisic, nurse director for the health department, adding she has spoken to officials in Huntington, Charleston and other cities who have offered similar sterile needle programs.

The idea behind the harm reduction program is to offer clean needles to intravenous drug users to prevent the spread of disease. Health officials say that when a craving hits or when an addict is going through withdrawal, they are more apt to use a dirty needle.

“This is not to encourage drug use. It’s not to encourage illegal drug use. It is to encourage safe and responsible use, if you’re going to use drug, to decrease the Hepatitis C, HIV, Hepatitis B – those are all bloodborne pathogens, and you get them from sharing needles, amongst other things,” stressed McKisic.

Because Milan Puskar’s staff will be serving the Upshur County community once a month, residents are given clean needles based on “what they feel they need for a month.”

“People have to realize this isn’t just a shoot up once a day,” said McKisic. “There are people that we have had reports on from other harm reduction programs that shoot up 10, 12, 15 times a day.”

Individuals in the program will be given a sharps disposal container along with the needles. Needles are expected to be brought back the next month in order to receive clean needles.

“If they don’t exchange 100 percent of what they we’re given, they only get what they bring back,” said McKisic.

Though McKisic said she’s not aware of Upshur County being polluted with dirty needles being thrown out in public places, she thinks through the needle exchange program, drug users will be more willing to bring back the needles.

Milan Puskar will be set up at the health department on May 10. McKisic said she is still working out the details in order to protect individuals’ anonymity.

Along with providing individuals with clean needles, McKisic said, “It’s more than just the needles.” The program tries to reduce harm in many aspects of an addicted person’s life, which is why Milan Purskar will be offering a multitude of resources.

“They will have a social worker. They have a counselor available. They have a nurse practitioner that will be on their van and a nurse for the most part. Some times it’ll be a nurse practitioner, a mental health counselor and a social worker or it will be a nurse practitioner, a nurse and a social worker,” explained McKisic, noting individuals can learn about treatment placements or have wounds accessed.

Milan Puskar’s staff will also put in referrals for health care, whether the patient is referred locally or to an out of the area facility. Brochures and pamphlets to educate individuals will also be offered.

“They do try to encourage them to stop the use, but sometimes they have to build trust … because so many of these people are put down and made to feel like being less than a human being,” McKisic.

Though the health department and several cities in the state declare the syringe exchange approach is a step forward, a community member is speaking out in opposition to the program.

Susan Foster spoke at Buckhannon’s City Council April 19 meeting, urging city officials to somehow stall the needle exchange program.

“I understand that the intent of the program is to decrease the incident of infections, diseases and bloodborne pathogens, such as HIV and Hepatitis B and C,” she said.

However, Foster described the harm reduction program as a “misguided and wrongheaded” approach to the opioid epidemic. She said an old saying was appropriate to the matter: “If you want to kill a snake, you don’t cut off the tail of the snake. You cut off the head.”

“I believe that proponents of needle exchange programs are focused on the tail end of the snake rather than on the head of the program, and that such tunnel vision is preventing them from considering the unattended consequences which might result in the implementation of the needle exchange program,” Foster said.

She said providing individuals with paraphernalia is a form of “enabling them to continue their drug use habits.”

“It also sends a mixed message – don’t do drugs, but if you do we will give you clean needles for you to continue to shoot up. You might die from a drug overdose, but at least you won’t die from HIV or Hepatitis B or C,” Foster said.

McKisic admits that it took some soul searching herself to get on board with the harm reduction program. She said she understands the hesitation from some community members; however, she said the health department’s job is to treat the public.

“We need to educate our community. We need to let them know that these people are somebody’s child. Some woman gave birth to these people. And everybody that is an addict or addicted to opioid or any other addiction that consumes them like the opioids and the meth does, these people didn’t say ‘Hey, I’m going to try this because I want to be an addict. I want to be homeless. I want to be poor. I want to be this. I want my family to not love me or trust me,'” she said. “Nobody did this with that idea.”