Kentucky Health News
Clark and Boyd counties are the ninth and 10th Kentucky counties to approve a needle-exchange program, and Madison and Anderson counties are talking about it. Meanwhile, the city of Covington has approved an exchange with conditions that don’t match its health department’s plan, and one of the conditions might not even be legal.
Needle exchanges were approved under the state’s anti-heroin law passed in 2015, and require both local approval and funding. They are meant to slow the spread of HIV and the hepatitis C virus (HCV), which are commonly spread by the sharing of needles among intravenous drug users.
Clark County Health Director Scott Lockard noted that the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has “identified 54 counties in Kentucky as being vulnerable to rapid dissemination of HIV or HCV infection among persons who inject drugs. Of the top 25 most vulnerable counties in the nation 16 of them are in our state.”
On March 23, the Clark County Fiscal Court approved on a 4-2 vote a needle exchange that will start on or before June 1, but the program will need re-authorization in January, Greg Kocher reports for the Lexington Herald-Leader.
“Both the Fiscal Court and the [Winchester] City Commission inserted a sunset clause in the orders requiring the health department to present data on our program in January 2017 in order to get re-authorization for a longer time period,” Lockard told Kentucky Health News in an e-mail.
He noted that the CDC identified nearby Wolfe County as the most vulnerable county in the nation to rapid dissemination of HIV and HCV among drug users, with adjoining Powell and Estill counties 15th and 25th, respectively.
“Residents from all three of these counties frequently come to Clark County for medical services from our provider community and the health department,” he said. “More must be done in the area of prevention if we are to avoid a situation similar to what Scott County, Indiana, encountered.”
That county, about 30 miles north of Louisville, has drawn national attention for its high rates of HIV and hepatitis C, mostly caused by intravenous drug users who share needles. According to published reports, “from November 2014 to mid-June 2015, the Indiana county of 24,200 reported 170 HIV cases. It reported 130 new cases of hepatitis C in 2014,” noted Bill Robinson of The Richmond Register.
According to Lockard, Clark County’s program will use a patient negotiation model, which does not require a one-to-one needle exchange, during the initial visit, but will try to get close to a one-for-one model on subsequent visits.
“We will educate participants that they need to return needles to get needles,” he said.
The Boyd County Fiscal Court voted 4-1 March 15 to approve a one-to-one needle exchange for one year, Lana Bellamy reports for The Daily Independent.
The Ashland City Commission had already given its approval for the exchange, which may begin as early as July. Bellamy reports that the program will be paid for by special taxing districts, and all of the fiscal court members voiced concerns about the sustainability of the funding.
Ashland-Boyd County Health Department Director Maria Hardy told the court that syringes typically cost about 97 cents each, but the health department will be able to buy needles from a distributor for 9 cents each, Bellamy writes.
The Boyd County program will assign tracking numbers to its participants to protect their identities and allow a maximum of 40 needles to be exchanged each week.
County Commissioner John Greer, the only member to vote against the resolution, said he was concerned the program would encourage drug abuse and Sheriff Bobby Jack Woods agreed, Bellamy reports. This is a common concern among opponents of needle exchange programs, though evidence-based studies have proven otherwise.
During the same week, the City of Covington approved a needle-exchange program, but with conditions that could kill the program, Terry DeMio reports for The Cincinnati Enquirer.
The conditions are that all participants be tested for hepatitis C, hepatitis B, HIV, and, where applicable, pregnancy. That could be illegal, DeMio reports.
A Northern Kentucky Health Board spokeswoman told DeMio that they believe that they cannot require anyone to undergo any medical procedures, but said they were checking with legal counsel. Other health and harm-reduction officials told DeMio that this requirement is not legal, and that such a condition would likely prevent a program from getting off the ground.
“The Covington commission’s resolution includes other conditions that differ from the health board’s model program, too, and would require passage from the Kenton County Fiscal Court and the Board of Health before it’s approved,” DeMio writes.
These conditions include a requirement that two other counties in the Northern Kentucky Health District also adopt a needle-exchange program (only Grant County has); restrict use of the program residents of the district’s four counties; and moving the exchange to St. Elizabeth Healthcare hospital.
The city also wants a one-for-one exchange, Michael Monks reports for The River City News.
The health department says its plan is “need-based,” not one-for-one, because studies show that is the best way to reduce the risk of community exposure and spread of HIV and HCV. This is the main goal of the program, although needle-exchange programs also provide HIV and HCV testing and access to drug treatment.
The health department’s plan is to initially provide clients with the number of syringes they would use in a week, along with a safe container for their return with instruction to return the used needles for new ones. Participants who don’t return dirty needles after three trips would not receive new syringes, DeMio reports.
The department has been trying to establish needle-exchange programs in the district since the law passed one year ago. The Kenton County Fiscal Court is expected to discuss a needle exchange plan March 29, DeMio reports.
Dr. Lynne Saddler, the health department’s director, told the Enquirer “that the Covington resolution was a start and that more discussion is planned by the health department.”
Madison County Health Department officials are also worried about becoming another Scott County, Indiana, as they face an epidemic of heroin use in their county, Bill Robinson reports for The Richmond Register.
Thus they have begun the process of educating their public officials, Robinson writes. Public Health Director Nancy Crewe presented her detailed findings to support a needle exchange at a quarterly joint meeting of the county Fiscal Court, Richmond City Commission and Berea City Council, noting that they were just beginning the long process of educating the public.
A needle exchange program was also brought up at the March meeting of the Anderson County Fiscal Court meeting, and was met with some disparaging remarks, Ben Carson reports for The Anderson News.
“What jackass thought of that idea?” asked Magistrate David Montgomery. “We might as well give them the dope, too.”
Despite these comments, Montgomery did volunteer to be on a committee to explore a needle exchange program along with members of the health board, Lawrenceburg City Council, law enforcement, EMS and county jailer.
Robinson also reports that the Bourbon County Fiscal Court has voted to reject an exchange.
The other needle exchanges in the state that are either operating or have been approved are in Louisville and Lexington and in the counties of Pendleton, Carter, Elliott, Franklin, Grant, and Jessamine.