Syringe exchange ready to roll except for one thing: a location to operate

One-for-one exchange

Willapa Behavioral Health has everything in place to start its one-for-one syringe exchange program in Grays Harbor County, except the most critical piece: a place to operate.

“We’ve got everything in place except for where we can work the syringe exchange, the most important part,” said Salina Mecham, Willapa Behavioral Health interim CEO.

The county had run the syringe exchange program for many years, but its last day of service was March 30, said Grays Harbor County Public Health and Social Services Healthy Places Division Manager Cassie Lentz. The Grays Harbor Board of County Commissioners passed a resolution earlier this year to end the county’s involvement with the program effective April 1. Last month, Willapa Behavioral Health came forward with its proposal to run the program itself.

Adjustments to grants that fund the syringe exchange program have been made to make Willapa Behavioral Health the recipient, and Willapa Behavioral Health continues to apply for other grants to sustain the program. Mecham said they also have had financial support from other community partners and private donors.

As for locations, “We are having trouble finding a space” for the mobile exchange to operate for a few hours at a time, said Mecham. “We’ve checked with multiple people and it’s not working out as well as we were hoping.” Locations need to be safe, discrete, and in a place where they are welcomed, she said.

When the resolution to end the county’s involvement with the program was being discussed, Mecham said she had heard from private property owners and others who indicated they were willing to provide a location, but follow-ups so far have come up dry. She said anyone interested in providing a location can call Willapa Behavioral Health’s main business line to get in contact with her at 360-642-3787.

Mecham said the syringe exchange will operate as a one-for-one, true exchange.

“There are two flavors of an exchange. One is an as-needed basis, where they say I need a syringe and we give them one,” said Mecham. Willapa Behavioral Health’s program will be “a one-for-one, because we want to make sure the community benefits from this. If they want a needle they have to give a needle. This way we give the needle value so it won’t be discarded on the side of the road somewhere; they need to bring it in to get a clean needle, so it will help with the amount of needle garbage.”

The exchange works like this: People bring their needles in a container and swap them for an equal number of clean needles. Mecham said they need to fill out a little bit of information, not necessarily personal information, but the type of information that helps staff “build programs that better serve people.” The dirty needles are properly disposed of.

Those using the exchange will also be offered and distributed naloxone kits to assist with overdoses, and offered Hepatitis C and HIV screening. Then, two qualified staff are on hand to talk to the individuals about available treatment options.

“One of the biggest things we’re looking for is to build a rapport” with the (needle) exchange clients. Someone not ready that moment for treatment may recall a positive experience with staff at the exchange is more likely to be open to treatment down the road, explained Mecham.

Willapa Behavioral Health will use a network made up of needle exchange users to spread the word about exchange times and locations when they are available.

“It’s interesting how well-connected the homeless network and user network is,” said Mecham. “We have the names of a couple of people willing to help us spread the word.”