Commissioners vote to end syringe exchange in June

Grays Harbor County will discontinue its syringe exchange program in Aberdeen on June 30, following a 2-1 vote by county commissioners in favor of ending it. Commissioners Vickie Raines and Wes Cormier voted to discontinue it, while Commissioner Randy Ross voted against the resolution at their meeting Tuesday.

Cormier, who made the resolution to end the syringe exchange, said he has opposed the program because he doesn’t believe it’s an appropriate use of county funds.

“I don’t think it’s the role of county government to supply drug paraphernalia to drug users,” said Cormier. “If doctors feel like this is a health care emergency, doctors can form a non-profit, they have deep pockets, and can do this on their own.”

Raines agreed with Cormier in not wanting the county to oversee the program, but she wants the program to continue and be run by another agency.

“My goal is for it not to go away, and just not have the county run it,” said Raines in a phone interview. “If a solution comes back that’s better than we discussed, I have no problem rescinding what we decided.”

Raines and Cormier added they think it’s a “double standard” for the county to arrest people for illegal drugs while also providing them new syringes through a county program.

Ross said he sees merit in continuing the program, but wishes it was held in the county’s public health building instead of under a bridge. Prior to the vote, Ross suggested an amendment to add two public hearings on the future of the program, but it was voted down.

Aberdeen’s syringe exchange started in 2004 and allows people to trade in used needles for new ones at no cost. It’s run by Grays Harbor Public Health and Social Services out of a converted motorhome under the Chehalis River Bridge, and is open on one day a week for several hours. The idea of the program is people can better avoid diseases such as HIV and Hepatitis C if they don’t have to reuse needles that become contaminated.

Karolyn Holden, director of Grays Harbor County Public Health and Social Services, opposes ending the program, and said she has already talked with other local treatment providers about potentially continuing the service.

“We will continue to work hard to make sure whatever can be in place to assist people into recovery and protect the health of the public will happen somewhere in the community,” said Holden.

Cormier’s resolution originally would have ended the program on Feb. 1, but Raines made an amendment to allow it until June 30 so the public health department has time to look for another agency to continue it.

Because used and damaged syringes are more likely to transmit diseases, Holden said she’s concerned that cases of HIV and hepatitis will spike, and that more people will experience overdose deaths if the county also takes away the program’s naloxone distribution.

Tom Jensen, CEO of Grays Harbor Community Hospital, said the hospital is “strongly in favor” of needle exchange programs, and that getting rid of Aberdeen’s would hurt the hospital by increasing the number of patients who contract disease from dirty needles.

“The Emergency Department will begin to see incidents of abscesses and infections in patients who re-use or share needles, which can increase our already-packed waiting rooms,” Jensen wrote in a statement, adding that needle exchanges contribute to “vast reduction” of HIV transmission and other blood-borne pathogens.

“The costs to run a needle-exchange program (sterile syringes can cost as little as 97 cents each) are insignificant compared to the cost to care for a syringe-infected HIV patient whose lifetime cost of treatment is estimated at more than $300,000,” Jensen wrote. “We would welcome discussion and collaboration with those who want to help bring this program back to Grays Harbor and protect our citizens.”

So far in 2018, it’s estimated that 929,000 needles have been exchanged. The needles are paid for by the Washington State Department of Health, and the county only funds around $52,000 to staff the operation, using money from the Treatment Sales Tax.

The motorhome also provides a bulk disposal site for used needles, and Holden and other public health officials are worried that ending the program will cause a rise in the number of discarded needles around Aberdeen. She also disagreed with the notion that syringe exchanges simply give out needles.

“There’s a perception that we’re handing out needles, and that’s not the case; you have to bring one to get one,” said Holden. “The effectiveness of syringe exchanges with reducing harm and improving health was so well-demonstrated by research in the 1980s and ‘90s, there’s not even any research being done anymore. It’s clearly an appropriate service.”