Residents respond to new needle exchange program

The Inter-Mountain photo by Sarah Goodrich Deputy Tyler Gordon with the Upshur County Sheriff’s Office holds up a bag of syringes he has collected in the line of duty.

BUCKHANNON — More than 60 community members gathered in the public safety complex Tuesday evening for the Upshur-Buckhannon Health Department’s educational presentation concerning a recently implemented harm reduction program.

After residents, city and county officials questioned the intent behind the needle exchange program, the health department, along with Laura Jones and Caitlin Sussman from Milan Puskar Health Right (MPHR), decided to sponsor an open session to thoroughly discuss L.I.G.H.T. – Living In Good Health Together, a harm reduction program working to reduce the transmission of disease among intravenous drug users.

Currently L.I.G.H.T. is being offered in Upshur County as well as Preston, Monongahela and potentially Lewis counties.

The program was introduced to Upshur County in early April, and has since been utilized in the area twice.

“(L.I.G.H.T.) is a harm reduction program, syringe access program that’s focused on not just getting syringes out to people, but actually working with them to improve their health and eventually and hopefully get them into treatment,” explained Laura Jones, executive director of MPHR.

“We are trying to shine a light into the darkness of addiction and opioid abuse,” she continued.

Jones said many of the clients that participate in the harm reduction program are people who have “reached a point to where they don’t see a lot of hope for the future.”

She said the need for syringe exchange in West Virginia is “immense.”

“The reason for that is that the usage numbers in West Virginia of people who inject drugs has doubled over the last five years,” she said.

Jones stressed that the program is not to encourage drug use, but rather to prevent the spread of disease among IV drug users.

Drug users who don’t have access to clean syringes or share needles are at extreme risk for Hepatitis B, Hepatitis C, HIV and other medical concerns from untreated wounds.

“Typically the transmission occurs because there are not enough syringes in the community, people don’t have access to them, so they’re sharing them,” she said.

MPHR’s harm reduction program not only provides clients with clean syringes, but also offers testing for infectious diseases, treats wounds from IV using and directs clients to treatment opportunities.

At Tuesday’s public forum, a handful of residents backed MPHR and the health department’s decision on implementing the harm reduction program into the county.

Also speaking in support of the program was Upshur County Sheriff’s Deputy Tyler Gordon, who came to the front of the room with a box in hand.

“This is what — just me, personally — in my vehicle is what I find on people, in cars, things like that,” he said, as he held a bag of collected syringes in the air. “These people don’t care whether there’s a needle exchange (program).”

Gordon continued, “These ladies are 100 percent right, and I agree. I hate drugs just as much as anybody in this room. I deal with it every night of my life. I’m sick of it. But these people use no matter what. Most of these are dirty needles.”

He explained an officer in the county had suffered a puncture from a needle which was used by a person who tested positive for Hepatitis C.

“So yes, we have a problem. We’ve got at least one person that has Hepatitis C in this county,” Gordon said. “The quality of life, the crime rate, drugs aren’t going anywhere. I believe that’s more of a reason to do these kind of programs.”

Matt Kerner, who is the director of Opportunity House, said he has worked with people who have gotten clean from harm reduction programs.

“We’re wanting to address public health by public opinion,” Kerner said.

Several who spoke in opposition to the program commented that people who utilize the needle exchange programs are not like the folks sitting in on the public session, which Kerner said he found to be offensive.

“All of these people look just like everybody else. Thinking that these people are different is part of the stigma that needs to be destroyed,” Kerner said. “Addicts don’t look like junkies digging in the dumpster. You don’t know who they are. The more we stigmatize people the less likely they are to seek help because it’s embarrassing and shameful and they won’t go ask for help.”

Ashley Gordon, who is currently in nursing school, said she’s concerned about the first responders, health care workers and EMS employees who take the risk of potentially getting punctured by unsterile needles daily.

“The thing about the needle exchange program … you have to think about that there’s at least one good thing about this, we’re always going to find needles,” she said. “…You also have to think about the Hepatitis C that is going to be increasing. That is what a public health department is all about. They’re about reducing these epidemics before they become pandemics.”

Ashley Gordon stressed that folks have to think of the program from a community viewpoint.

“If this Hepatitis C spreads all you have to do is get in contact with that blood somewhere or with a dirty needle somewhere,” she said. “And that is so easy to do in a small community where we’re so close knit and we’re interacting with everyone every day.”

Several community members expressed reservations about the needle exchange program.

Buckhannon City Council Robbie Skinner said he was concerned with the transparency of the program as well as its potential for diminishing Buckhannon’s “quality of life.”

“We’re very proud of our quality of life here and we are very, very concerned that this is going to change that,” he said. “We really work hard here to have a great community and we are known statewide, regionally as one of the best places to live, work and enjoy, and we want to keep that, and we’re working hard to do that … We just want to make sure we’re all on the same page and we’re hearing what everyone has to say. That’s why we’re here because we love where we live and we want to keep in that way.”

Pastor Ed McDaniels said he believed it seemed “so wrong” to distribute clean syringes.

“The thing that really bothers me the most is that there’s not age requirement for this. A 16-year-old can actually come in and pick up those needles if asked and parents are not even notified,” he said. “If I could have gotten my child at the age of 16 he might not be in the situation that he is at 24. How shameful it is to not call a parent and say, ‘You better help this child.'”

Sharla Smith, service unit director for the Salvation Army, said she has received feedback from individuals saying the harm reduction program is “a slice of heaven.”

“I’ve had an IV drug user come into my office and be excited that she no longer has to use a dull needle. The word ‘dirty’ was not used,” she said. “She was excited that she no longer had to use a dull needle because of the program being offered.”

Smith asked how to remove the program from the county.

“I don’t think you’re going to get it out. We’ve already seen an increase of people. It’s only going to get better,” said Sue McKisic, nurse director for the Upshur-Buckhannon Health Department.

Jones emphasized that drug users will continue to use “whether or not we have a program or not.”

“They also will use and use whatever syringe they can find. They will share a syringe. They will use a dirty syringe that they find on the street,” she said. “You probably don’t believe that someone would be that desperate, but if you are addicted to opioids you are that desperate.”

“The feelings that you get when you begin to lose the drug from your system are so uncomfortable and so stressful that a lot of the times it consumes peoples’ lives. It consumes their time — they’re looking for the next drug that they need. They are looking for syringes, and so that isn’t going to stop,” Jones said. “That’s part of addiction.”

At the end of the public session, Jones noted MPHR has not seen as much negative feedback from the other participating counties as it has in Upshur County.