Health and county officials consider syringe exchange solutions

The syringe exchange program in Aberdeen is still slated to end June 30 following a vote last month by the Grays Harbor County Commissioners, but public health and county officials are working to come up with a solution to avoid potential negative side effects of ending it.

At Thursday’s County Board of Health meeting, public health officials from the county and state voiced their support of the county-run syringe exchange program, which allows drug users, typically heroin users, to exchange used needles for clean ones.

One concern of the county health department is that the state grant for distributing naloxone — a medicine that counteracts opioid overdoses — is tied to there being a syringe exchange program, meaning the naloxone program would end with the syringe exchange.

Commissioner Vickie Raines said she didn’t realize the county’s grant for naloxone was tied to the syringe exchange when she voted in favor of ending the program, and said Friday she probably wouldn’t have voted to end it if she knew that at the time. However, Raines said she’s glad she voted in favor of the resolution because it has sparked a review of the program and its effects.

“The things I’ve found out since (voting) really show we need to take a look at this program in more depth,” Raines said in an interview Friday. “We’ve had it since 2004 but it hasn’t really been reviewed, or analyzed and presented to the commissioners in the past.”

Commissioner Randy Ross suggested there be a workshop at the next quarterly County Board of Health meeting, April 25, to discuss the syringe exchange, and Raines said they will consider alternatives to the program at that meeting.

“(The naloxone) makes a big difference in how I feel about the full program, I don’t think that was described to us in full detail,” said Raines, who noted she wasn’t ready yet to vote again on the resolution. “I would like to have that conversation, and consider at our April meeting whether we are to rescind that resolution or come up with some other plan that helps us be able to move forward.”

Since the program was started there haven’t been any major changes to the syringe exchange, according to Grays Harbor Public Health and Social Services Director Carolyn Holden.

Commissioner Wes Cormier presented the original resolution to end the syringe exchange, during the regular commissioner meeting Dec. 18, with Cormier explaining he didn’t think it was an appropriate service for the county to provide. The three county commissioners voted 2 to 1 in favor of ending the syringe exchange, with Cormier and Raines voting to end the exchange, while Commissioner Randy Ross voted to keep the program. Raines said her goal was to get an outside agency to run the program instead of the county.

Holden presented a broad history of the syringe exchange program at Thursday’s meeting, and said the county health department is drafting information for its stakeholders to better understand the program.

Also at the meeting was Sarah Deutsch, Drug User Health Consultant for the Washington State Department of Health. She said syringe exchanges are vital to communities because they are one of the few places certain drug users are connected and referred to other health services.

“The people who use syringe exchanges are not people who are readily engaged by traditional healthcare providers,” said Deutsch. “It’s really at the syringe exchange we have these opportunities to rope people in and have a captive audience to provide education and linkage. That’s really an invaluable service you can’t put a dollar amount on, and we’re going to be looking at ways to put a price tag on linkage to care and referrals, because that is truly one of the things syringe exchanges are capable of that no one else can do.”

The county’s Health Officer, Dr. John Bausher, also spoke at the meeting, and said from a medical perspective he fears there will be severe negative impacts if the syringe program ends, such as finding more contaminated needles in public and overloading hospitals with people contracting diseases like HIV and Hepatitis C.

“From a medical standpoint, I don’t believe most people understand what the ripple effect would be if the program was discontinued,” said Bausher. “The burden to the hospital from increased exposure to contaminated needles would greatly increase.”