Officials: Needle Program in Wheeling Doing Its Job

WHEELING — Amid the ongoing opioid epidemic, local officials remain convinced the current needle exchange program reduces the risk of infectious disease in the community.

By contrast, the needle exchange program in Charleston, W.Va. has become embroiled in controversy in recent weeks.

The problems cited in Charleston have, to this point, not been reported in the Northern Panhandle. The Wheeling-Ohio County Health Department conducts an off-site program at a Northwood Health System facility, located at 2121 Eoff St., from noon to 3 p.m. every Friday.

Administrator Howard Gamble said the project has expanded to include a small program offered during the health department’s homeless outreach clinics and distribution from the health department’s office in the City-County Building at 1500 Chapline St.

This program operates as a one-for-one free exchange, in which health personnel accept used needles and can give out an equal number of sterile syringes.

“We don’t allow the picking up of needles for someone else. The individual or client wanting clean needles will have to dispose of the dirty needles, onsite, then receive the limited supply of clean needles,” Gamble said.

Wheeling Police Chief Shawn Schwertfeger, who had experience with a needle exchange in another municipality, believes the local program has been successful.

He said these programs are supported on the basis of lowering the risk of infectious diseases being transmitted.

“We’ve had some very minor complaints about the exchange program, but I don’t know if they’ve ever been validated,” Schwertfeger said.

Last week, the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department made changes to its needle exchange program after Charleston Mayor Danny Jones and other officials criticized the service. The changes were announced after a bill was introduced in Charleston City Council to re-criminalize hypodermic needles and syringes used as drug paraphernalia.

The Kanawha-Charleston Health Department now requires clients to show identification and be present at the clinic to receive needles. Previously, Kanawha County clients could pick up syringes for others — a practice that Ohio County never allowed.

The needle exchange in Wheeling was launched in 2015 to reduce harm for intravenous drug users. Health officials said infectious diseases such as HIV, hepatitis C and hepatitis B can be spread when dirty needles are reused. In addition, the needle exchange provides information for addicts to seek treatment or counseling.

“No matter whether you are enabling or helping, at the end of the day, if you’re lowering the spread of disease in a community, you’re doing good. I’m thinking of my officers as well, as we’re certainly exposed to diseases,” Schwertfeger said.

“When we started our program, we met with law enforcement (city, county and federal), legal counsel, city and county leaders and our health care partners. Our needle exchange program is a ‘one for one’ exchange, so in order to get a clean needle, you will need to turn in a used or dirty needle,” Gamble added.

The Wheeling-Ohio County program limits the number of needles to 20 per visit. It provides limited additional supplies (condoms and alcohol prep pads).

“Our exchange is also governed by a county Board of Health regulation and was set up for the sole goal to prevent disease,” Gamble said.

Charleston Police Chief Steve Cooper and David Hodges, director of the Charleston Fire Department’s EMS operations, have said their officers and firefighters encounter dirty needles when they respond to calls. Hodges also has complained of apparent “booby-trapping.”

In Wheeling, however, Schwertfeger said, “We have no reported incidents of any sort of sabotage or booby traps.”

“I have heard of the issues concerning the finding of needles in the Charleston area and risk to first responders. I have not heard of issues from our city, county or state law enforcement or first responders similar to that was described in Charleston. We do accept needles and other items from our law enforcement community that they collect during encounters and dispose in our medical waste,” Gamble said.

Dr. Rahul Gupta, commissioner of the West Virginia Bureau for Public Health, said, “We believe that high-quality, comprehensive harm reduction programs are critical to preventing outbreak of diseases and also help people enter treatment. There is a value to those programs.”

Regarding Charleston’s controversy, Gupta said, “When there are programs in local communities, there are bound to be discussions back and forth. Conversations are important to have and to identify challenges about the needles … In the conversation, it’s important the value and significance of the concept not get lost.”

He added, “It’s critical to have local buy-in with local communities and working along with local police departments and fire departments and EMS in an all-hands-on-deck approach. It’s important that they’re all working to offer best available science and practice to their communities.”

The state health officer said, “There is significant data that if you’re running a high-quality, comprehensive program, you’re preventing outbreaks of disease and helping people to enter into treatment and receive counseling.”

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