The first needle exchange in Lorain County could be up and running by this summer.
Wellington police chief Tim Barfield announced Thursday that his department plans to launch the exchange as a way to keep drug users a bit safer until they decide to seek rehabilitation.
“At the end of the day, isn’t it all about helping people?” he asked during a town hall event at the Patricia Lindley Center for the Performing Arts. “The genesis of this whole thing is we would arrest someone and put them in jail. Then they’d get out, go steal from Mom and Dad again, and we’d arrest them and put them in jail again. We weren’t fixing anything. If we can get them off the dope, they’re not out stealing anymore. I’m not anti-crime enforcement at all but this is just another route and maybe the one that ultimately is a solution.”
This past October, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention deemed Lorain County a prime candidate for a needle exchange while in communication with county health commissioner David Covell, who stood alongside Barfield Thursday as he shared the news.
“(Barfield) came up to me during a meeting with the Nord Family Foundation and said he’d be really interested in Wellington being a site,” Covell said. “Of course, I thought about how controversial it can be and asked him if was sure. He said yes and then we came out and met with the mayor. We knew about the legalities of how it works in Ohio but also that there was a lot of work to do.”
Wellington mayor Hans Schneider, village council, the South Lorain County Ambulance District, and Wellington fire department have also endorsed the needle exchange program, Barfield said.
Those who seek aid will be required to speak with police officers about their situation before exchanging needles.
“For those who want to quit, this will keep them healthy until the day they walk in and say, ‘This is over. I want to stop,”’ Covell said.
The risk for significant increases in viral hepatitis or an HIV outbreak has risen drastically in Lorain County due to injection drug use, a letter from the CDC to Covell stated.
The county experienced a 522 percent increase in diagnoses of hepatitis C between 2012 and 2016 and the number of new cases found in the first half of 2017 was equal to 90 percent of all cases documented the previous year.
Overdose deaths have increased by 170 percent in Lorain County over the past decade.
In 2014, half of the county’s fatal overdoses were related to heroin use but by 2016 synthetic opioids like fentanyl and carfentanyl were the catalyst in the same percentage of deaths. From 2012-2016, demand for clean needles in the area increased by 300 percent, according to the CDC.
As logistics are worked out with the Lorain County Sheriff’s Office, prosecutor Dennis Will, and Lorain County General Health, Barfield said he’s glad those seeking a needle exchange in the area will soon likely have a better option than driving to Cleveland.
“We know this community is ready to embrace this,” he said. “As we’ve talked to people who go out to Cleveland, we found out there’s a lot of 44090 zip codes among them. Our police department is finding needles all over the place and that’s a concern for our public. We find them in houses when we go in to make arrests. I think we must’ve found 100 needles in one house.”
According to the CDC, increased rates of HIV and hepatitis C infections in rural and suburban areas affected by the opioid epidemic is prompting many communities to consider needle exchange programs.
A 2015 study found that only 20 percent of needle exchanges nationwide are located in rural areas although nearly half of all people who inject drugs live outside of cities.
Jonathan Delozier can be reached at 440-775-1611 or @DelozierNews on Twitter.