Not everyone is thrilled with the idea of a needle exchange in Wellington, raising worries about clients staying around to shoot up or discarding used needles in public areas.
“This is a community health issue,” said Pat Repka, a resident who’s worked in the drug treatment field. “Needles in these communities (with an exchange program) are ending up en masse in areas where kids play. I don’t want my kids around that. Addicts don’t care or they only care about one thing.”
“I’ve let my kids run off and play at the rec park and then thought, ‘What might be lying out there in the grass?”’ said Samantha Mariast. “Many times too, addicts will learn how to take advantage of a needle exchange.”
The concerns were voiced May 23 at a public meeting hosted by police chief Tim Barfield and mayor Hans Schnedier.
They invited residents to village hall to ask questions, voice support or opposition to plans for a needle exchange, and learn about positive strides the Wellington police department’s LINC program has made in combating opioid overdoses.
Village public works employees are already finding needles throughout Wellington and are taking extra safety precautions when cleaning out garbage cans, Schneider said.
More than 100 needles have been found in homes after drug related arrests have been made, Barfield said.
“If there’s places (with an exchange) that have problems and some that don’t have problems, maybe it’s how those exchanges are being managed,” Barfield said. “The mayor was hesitant about this at first but was willing to hear me out. I think we’ve agreed we want to make sure this follows our parameters. We have the ability to pull the plug on it at any time.”
More than 200 needle exchange programs are in operation across 33 states. After the first U.S. exchange opened in 1988, Congress placed a moratorium on federal funds going toward the programs.
That decision was modified in 2016, making funds available for exchanges but not to purchase injection materials.
According to the World Health Organization, exchange programs are effective in stemming rates of infectious diseases like HIV and hepatitis C and are cost effective when compared to the price of treating the unfettered spread of those diseases.
Resident Debi Sorg, who works as a nurse in Cuyahoga County, said she supports a needle exchange because it opens the door to speak with addicts who otherwise may never reach out to law enforcement or medical professionals.
“Maybe it will take five or six trips for someone to finally make the move to get help, but isn’t that still worth it?” she asked. “Plus, many addicts don’t have private insurance or Medicaid. If we can reduce the risk of HIV and hep C spreading, it will cut down on a lot of health care costs.”
“I only have so much confidence in this program because of the success we’ve already seen with LINC,” Barfield said. “We love this town just like all of you and we want a program modeled to fit Wellington’s needs. I’m not a drug legalization person and think that drug use should be a crime, but what we’ve been doing in the past — just throwing people in jail — isn’t working anymore.”
The risk for significant increases in viral hepatitis or an HIV outbreak has risen drastically in Lorain County due to injection drug use, an October letter from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to Lorain County General Health director David 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.
The needle exchange, Lorain County’s first, is expected to open sometime in August and could be located at the South Lorain County Ambulance District. It would operate once or twice a month and require clients to speak with counselors as well as police officers before exchanging needles. Needles will be distributed in equal number to what’s turned in, whether that’s one for one, five for five, and so on.
No village funds will be used for the exchange. Lorain County General Health and the Nord Family Foundation will pay for medical staffing and grants will cover the cost of required on-duty police officers, according to Schneider.
Barfield and Schneider reiterated that if any problems arise with the program they have the ability to end it.
“I hope everyone that came today left with better feelings,” Schneider said after the meeting. “Sitting down and providing people with information is so important here. Trust us but don’t blindly trust us. It’s not necessarily a bad thing that some people have apprehension about this. We want people to hold us accountable. I thought today was a healthy dialogue and that some of their fears and reservations were answered. Maybe they still have some but that’s OK.”
“I still think an exchange program is a band-aid and enabling,” Repka said. “However, coming out of this meeting I feel confident that the program will be stopped if things go south. They’re committed to not allowing those bad things to happen. Some of the things I’ve read about I guess were a product of how those programs were set up. I just feel like it’s enabling.”
Jonathan Delozier can be reached at 440-775-1611 or @DelozierNews on Twitter.