MORGANTOWN — Two things become apparent listening to Milan Puskar Health Right Executive Director Laura Jones discuss the agency’s needle exchange program.
One, she believes wholeheartedly in the concept of harm reduction as a proven strategy to lessen the impacts of injection drug use on individuals and communities — be that through the suppression of diseases like HIV and Hepatitis C, the prevention and care of wounds, the distribution of overdose intervention drug Naloxone, or simply regular interaction between at-risk individuals and care providers.
Two, she knows the program is a lightning rod for criticism from those who reason that a clean-needle program situated in a relatively small downtown has led directly to the open drug use and erratic behavior common in the city’s center.
“It’s important to remember that harm reduction does not enable drug use. Addiction enables itself. We don’t have to do anything to enable it. People will use regardless of whether they have clean syringes,” Jones told Morgantown City Council.
She said Health Right intends to launch an anti-stigma campaign to combat some of the information spread online and elsewhere.
“We’ve been doing research on comments we’ve seen on Facebook, and it’s very clear there is a portion of our community that has a really poor understanding of addiction and the principles behind harm reduction,” Jones said. “Harm reduction does not claim to end the drug epidemic. That’s not the goal. The goal is to keep people alive and minimize the harm, so they have a chance at a healthy life after recovery.”
Health Right has operated the LIGHT Project (Living in Good Health Together) harm-reduction program out of its Spruce Street clinic since August 2015. The program’s funding comes entirely through the CDC as well as national agencies like AIDS United, NASTAD and Gilead Pharmaceuticals.
While the clinic previously distributed syringes based on need, it now operates under the state-mandated goal of actually exchanging needles one-to-one. Jones said the program is seeing a return rate of about 78%, which constitutes a 30-40% jump under the new procedures.
Those numbers vary month to month.
By way of example, she said the clinic distributed some 27,000 syringes this past June and collected about 31,000 in July.
Between January and August, 820 participants utilized the program, which is comprised of four clinics per week. Those numbers include 156 new participants over that eight-month stretch.
In a state that has entrenched itself atop the rankings for overdose death rate, Jones said harm-reduction programs have become critical to Naloxone distribution.
Health Right will be featured nationally by USA Today for its efforts to hand out more than 22,000 free doses, and it’s just one of the local agencies distributing the lifesaving medicine.
Even so, the rise of drugs like fentanyl and xylazine (a horse tranquilizer) have pushed Monongalia County’s overdose death rate from 278 per 100,000 people in 2017 to 358 per 100,000 today.
Jones concedes the unrelenting nature of the crisis wears on everyone, from the first responders, medical professionals and Health Right personnel who engage with it daily to members of the public who are simply tired of being confronted with it every time they go downtown.
“We all have a certain amount of fatigue,” Jones said, concluding that even when things seem hopeless, people can and do turn their lives around.
“We know this because we have hired people who are solid in recovery who at one time have been on the street,” she said. “We can’t just look at someone who comes into our harm-reduction program and say, ‘They’ll never amount to anything,’ because we know that it really happens — recovery happens, and people move on with their lives.”