Residents argue over merits of needle program

The Inter-Mountain photo by Sarah Goodrich Upshur-Buckhannon Health Department board members listen as community members weigh in on the recently implemented needle access program.

BUCKHANNON — Community members addressed Upshur-Buckhannon Health Department’s board members regarding a controversial subject — the recently implemented needle access program.

On Thursday evening, more than 60 people attended the health board meeting, which was relocated to The Event Center at Brushy Fork due to the anticipation of a large crowd.

In April the Buckhannon-Upshur Health Department, in partnership with Milan Puskar Health Right, implemented a harm reduction program, in which syringes, Naxalone, equipment for injection, proper disposal containers, wound treatment, counseling and information on drug treatment programs are offered to clients the second Thursday of every month.

The needle access program is designed to aid in the prevention of spreading infectious diseases — HIV, Hepatitis C and Hepatitis B — which is common among intravenous drug users who share or use unclean needles.

Since the announcement seemed to blindside the community, residents have shared their concerns and opinions about the program at Upshur County Commission meetings, a Buckhannon City Council meeting, an educational forum and during Thursday’s health board meeting.

On Thursday, several residents argued that the program should be suspended until it can be reassessed with guidelines and until the public can become more acclimated with the services offered to clients.

Burl Smith said he did not see the effectiveness of the current program, as it seems the county is taking a step back with the state’s opioid epidemic.

“Harm reduction program, I feel, is putting a square peg in a round hole,” said Smith. “It’s just trying to make it fit when it really doesn’t.”

Several community members were dismayed to find that the harm reduction program is not a one-to-one needle exchange.

“I’m not opposed to providing support; however, I am opposed to enabling a negative behavior without accountability,” Amy Cale said. “And I don’t know what this program is doing if it’s not a one-to-one exchange.”

As a teacher, Cale said she was concerned that students would bring needles into the classrooms.

“If you hand out just 100 needles a month to one household in a year that’s 1,200 needles within that one home that’s not accounted for,” she said. “Chances are those needles are going to end up on the school bus in the classroom and more than likely it is going to be the dirty needles that are not accounted for.”

Cale asked that accountability be required within the needle access program.

“Require names, addresses, if there’s children in the home. When we call as an educator to report an incident the DHHS’s first question is how many children and what are their ages,” she said. “Why are we not asking that when we’re handing out materials that’s namely a drug addiction with children in the home?”

Sharla Smith agreed with Cale, saying “We are not opposed to this program. We simply want guidelines. That’s it.”

Because the current program has no age guidelines, Smith stressed that the requirements need to be tightened.

“Who in their right mind would think that a minor could go to a van and leave with everything they need to be a heroin addict other than the drug?” she said. “Me, myself, if I would find my minor going to the van doing that I would feel that there could be legal action taken because you’ve contributed to a minor.”

Also at Thursday’s meeting, some residents urged the health department to continue the harm reduction process, stressing that needle access can prevent an infectious disease outbreak in the community.

Dr. Richard Kiley of Appalachian Community Health Center, asked, “Would you rather have a person have a needle exchange or die of HIV, Hep C, Hep A, Hep B?”

“It is not a sin to be addicted. It is a problem that needs to be addressed,” he said.

Kiley said the issue with the needle access program should be a situation where “we’re here to help each other and we’re going to help each other in any possible way we can.”

“We need to offer hope, not fear,” he said. “We need to offer opportunity, not deny opportunities and access.”

Angela Mchaffey echoed Kiley’s sentiments.

“If you think that the drug issues or there aren’t very many people using needles around here, and that it’s less because we’re a small rural area, I have to tell you it’s just much more hidden,” Mchaffey said, who has been a nurse for more than 20 years.

“As a nurse taking care of patients, kissing the foreheads of people who are dying because they waited to come in because they were afraid of how they would be treated by our own community by nurses and doctors,” she said. “I mean, these people died where if they would have came when they first realized they were sick we might have been able to do something to help them.”

Mchaffey said the implemented program is trying to “help put things in the practice to help prevent long-term poor outcomes.”

“We can’t do that if we’re not looking at best practices,” she said. “And as health care providers that’s what we do. We look at best practices. We look at research and that is how we decide what needs to be done and what is best on how we do those things.”

Dr. Lyndsi Cress explained that harm reduction programs not only aid in the prevention of infectious disease, but opens doors for addicts seeking rehabilitation.

“(The harm reduction programs) are also acting as an access point for these patients to come and be counseled and be supported and allow them the opportunity to go into rehab should they choose,” she said.

Cress continued, “People that do these programs are five times more likely to enter into a rehab program than if they had not. They are also a third less likely to share needles if they have clean needles and education that tells them how to perform the injection practices.”

The last person to speak for the evening was Rich Clemens, who said he appreciated the work of the board.

“It’s not easy sitting on that side of the table. I’ve sat on that side of the table on many issues … And it’s not easy,” he said. “I encourage you not to suspend this program. Keep it going. Don’t turn your back on the people that need you the most right now.”

Clemens said perhaps the board should form a committee to discuss implementing guidelines to the current program.

“But don’t stop it,” he said.

Following the public’s opportunity to speak, the board members continued with their regular monthly meeting.

During board member comments, Larry Carpenter said the board appreciates the public’s input and “will take it into consideration.”

“We’re here because we care about you and this community,” he said. “And our sole purpose is to protect you and our community.”