MAYFIELD, KY — The first syringe exchange program in west Kentucky is up and running with goals of preventing the spread of diseases, encouraging drug users to seek treatment, and reducing harm in the community.
Each participant can anonymously exchange used syringes and needles for clean ones on a one-for-one basis, up to 40 needles total, Health Department Harm Reduction Coordinator Lauren Carr said. They also receive a bag full of health-related items — including a sharps container for safely disposing of the used syringes and needles, a first aid kit, bandages and condoms.
Participants can get tested for hepatitis C and HIV for free and learn about treatment options if they test positive. A peer counselor — a former drug user who has been clean for 10 years — is also there to talk with them about drug addiction treatment options.
“From our perspective, if folks come in here and take advantage of this opportunity, and they get the resources that convince them to make a change in their life, and they are able to overcome their addiction, then that’s just one more productive citizen,” said Mayfield Police Chief Nathan Kent.
Kent, who said he applauds the health department for the program, believes it will not enable drug users.
“People that are using needles for intravenous drug use are going to do that anyway,” said Kent. “And so the program is about harm reduction — trying to keep those used, dirty needles from ending up in places that would be harmful to our kids, such as in parks, or even harmful to our city employees.”
“We have fire department paramedics that are oftentimes on their hands and knees in abandoned homes,” Kent explained. “That’s a dangerous position. We got police officers that are searching vehicles. We got public works employees that are cleaning out storm drains. And so if this program can help mitigate the chance of a citizen or a first responder being stuck accidentally, then that certainly would be a benefit to us.”
Meanwhile, the hepatitis C virus can live on a syringe, a cooker or a tourniquet for 30 to 60 days, explained Carr.
Carr said since the program debuted last week, one person had come in to exchange for clean needles.
A sharps container for disposing used needles
“The person said to me, ‘No one has treated me like a person before,’” recalled Carr. “The whole goal of this program is to meet individuals where they’re at, but you can’t leave them there. You have to give them the resources, the education, and the things that they need to make better choices for themselves.”
Noel Coplen, director of the Graves County Health Department, said that person also got tested for HIV and hepatitis C.
“He found out his results and was very glad to know that he was negative. He actually said, ‘This has changed my life,’” said Coplen.
Coplen said the syringe exchange program at the Graves County Health Department is mostly funded by federal and state grants. Coplen said only the syringes themselves are funded by local tax dollars. They cost 8 cents per syringe.
Coplen said the health board, the city council, and the fiscal court all had to approve the syringe exchange program before it went into effect.
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