The end of Grays Harbor County’s syringe exchange program appears to be one vote away.
At a special board of health meeting Tuesday, a resolution to end the program, in which dirty syringes can be exchanged for new, clean syringes, was ready for board action, pushed by two new County Commissioners who were just sworn in last week. However, the resolution itself was not included in the meeting notice, posted just a day before, so the board, made up of the three County Commissioners, will either have to call another special meeting to act on it or wait until the Jan. 28 regular board of health meeting.
The resolution reads, in part, that “the Board of Health believes that the operation of a syringe exchange in Grays Harbor County is not an appropriate use of taxpayer money,” and resolved to “discontinue funding, operation and service of the syringe exchange program on April 1, 2021.”
New County Commissioners Jill Warne and Kevin Pine ran on platforms that considered the syringe exchange to be a program that enables drug addiction, rather than mitigates it, and vowed to end it. Wednesday, both expressed their desire to follow through and vote yes on the resolution when it’s up for a vote.
“The community is very passionate about this and that is why we got the votes we did and why we were elected,” said Pine. “We said we are against giving out needles, they said, ‘you’ve got my vote’.”
With very short notice, the virtual meeting attracted nearly 100 attendees. There were comments from County Health Officer Dr. John Bausher, Grays Harbor Community Hospital CEO Tom Jensen, Aberdeen Fire Chief Tom Hubbard, representatives from the state Department of Health and Grays Harbor Public Health, among others, who spoke in favor of keeping the program active.
Early in the meeting, it was announced that 14 written public comments were received, nine in favor of continuing the exchange, five against.
Warne also affirmed Wednesday that she still intends to vote yes on the resolution to end the program, regardless of Tuesday’s testimony.
“Yes, the testimony was definitely stacked by the parties who want to keep it, whose jobs depend on it,” while “the conservative voice” was silenced because “those people are at work during the day.” She said she’s trying to set up an evening special meeting, perhaps even before the next regular board of health meeting, “after hours when people who are paid to be there won’t be there and those who are working can be.”
Commissioner Vickie Raines said, “I don’t like that we have a syringe program, but I understand why we do. And I think it should continue. Can it be modified? Yes, it can.” She added she hoped the new commissioners “will take the opportunity and the time to learn and educate themselves on the various programs the county provides prior to making a decision that can have a far-reaching impact.”
Because the special board meeting was announced Monday and held Tuesday, some questioned the timing of the resolution.
“I wouldn’t say we rushed it,” said Pine. “This discussion has been going on for a few years now,” referencing a similar resolution drafted by then Commissioner Wes Cormier two years ago, on which Warne said the current resolution is based. “This is something Jill and I have been talking about on the campaign trial since day one. This has been discussed and talked about and been on our agenda from day one. We are public servants, not politicians, and this is what the public wants.”
Bausher said the program is supported by funding through the state Department of Health and if it’s a question of proper use of taxpayer funds driving the effort to end the program in the county the specific taxpayer burden should be explored. But if the the question is, is the program a matter of medical significance, the answer is yes.
“It has been proven that drug abuse among participants drops three to five times as fast compared to those who do not participate in exchange programs,” said Bausher. He added that “not having an exchange program in a time of crisis, like the COVID experience we are having now, where the hospital is burdened by the occupancy of hospital beds by COVID patients,” the risk of further stressing the county’s limited medical resources with a rise in infectious diseases brought on by the use of dirty needles could be “catastrophic.”
Jensen’s testimony was short and passionate. “From the hospital standpoint, being in a pandemic, I beg you not to do this at this point in time. The hospital is just barely making it with the staffing we have.”
He told the Board of Health that he understood their job is political, but said, “If you have to make a decision, I ask that you wait. Give yourself some time to focus on the pandemic we have, not on a needle exchange that seems to be working for everyone involved, definitely law enforcement and fire personnel. Give me six months, until the COVID vaccine is through the community. I’m begging you, if you have to make a decision, make that decision six months from now.”
Commenting too was state Department of Health Drug Use Health Coordinator Tim Candela, who primarily oversees contracts for syringe service programs. He read a letter from new state Secretary of Health, Dr. Umair A. Shah.
In that letter, Shah said the Department of Health “strongly supports syringe service programs as an essential component to a comprehensive response to addressing substance use, the opioid and other drug overdose crisis, and preventing infectious diseases. (The programs) are a proven and effective community-based prevention program with over 30 years of research to support their efficacy.”
Syringe exchange programs “provide a range of services which reduce community health costs, including access to and disposal of sterile syringes and injection equipment, vaccination, testing, and linkage to infectious disease care and substance abuse treatment,” continued Shah. “Research shows that new uses of (the programs) are five times more likely to enter drug treatment and about three times more likely to stop using drugs than those who don’t use the programs.”
Shah added that programs that include providing naloxone, like Grays Harbor’s, “also help decrease opioid overdose deaths.”
He went into details about his department’s two current contracts with Grays Harbor County Public Health.
“One is $125,000 of general fund dollars to support operating expenses and supplies,” he wrote. “The other is $67,250 of CDC Overdose Data to Action funds for three years to support a half-time case manager to link and navigate (program) participants to health and social services in the community. We have a long-standing relationship with the Grays Harbor (program) and highly value the program’s work, which is why we have continued to and recently increased our support for the program.”
Aberdeen Fire Chief Tom Hubbard called the exchange program “Harm reduction at its finest.” He said giving addicts an opportunity to properly dispose of needles, in exchange for new, clean needles, lowers the risk of responders coming into contact with dirty syringes. “If the needle exchange takes dirty needles off the street, that’s reason enough to do it.”
Grays Harbor Public Hospital District 2 Commissioner Becky Walsh was also concerned ending the program would put responders at risk.
“My concern is about the increased risk to first responders and health care workers if this program is ended,” she said, adding the potential for increased transmission of infectious disease among the addicted population and community in general would also increase costs to the hospital. Ending the program, she said, “doesn’t save taxpayer dollars because if users get ill it’s expensive to treat.”
Susan Kingston, an opioid research project coordinator at the University of Washington, said the current program has, since 2017, allowed for the distribution of 2,000 doses of naloxone — which is used to immediately treat overdoses in the field — throughout the county, and that includes kits to numerous police agencies. To end the program before the Aug. 31 completion of the current grant that funds the distribution would interrupt the distribution of naloxone to those agencies.
Shah’s letter stated syringe programs “serve as the source of naloxone for all of law enforcement units in Grays Harbor and Pacific counties, including local units that aren’t directly under Grays Harbor County oversight. Closing the (programs) will end the contract with the University of Washington Alcohol/Drug Abuse Institute and shut off this source of naloxone both through the (syringe programs) and to law enforcement.”
Jennifer Brackeen, Director of Innovation at Summit Pacific Medical Center, said, “I’m concerned ending this harm reduction program may put the community at risk for receiving additional financial resources” to combat the county’s drug addiction problem.