As West Virginia’s opioid crisis continues, programs proven to help injection drug users face pushback
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As West Virginia’s opioid crisis continues, programs proven to help injection drug users face pushback

Aug 14, 2023

Joe Solomon, Democratic candidate for city council and co-director of the non-profit Solutions Oriented Addiction Response, stops by a syringe disposal box outside the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department, Tuesday, April 5, 2022, in Charleston, W.Va. Solomon had spent three days eating at soup kitchens and sleeping under bridges and in parking lots while interviewing residents about the changes they’d like to see in the city’s response to issues like homelessness and substance use. (AP Photo/Leah Willingham) (AP Photo/Leah Willingham)

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West Virginia residents remain divided on a syringe service program aimed at reducing substance abuse issues and the spread of blood-borne infections linked to needle usage. The state leads the nation in overdose deaths per capita, yet a recent Charleston public hearing showed that many are torn on how to address the crisis.

According to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 1,501 people died from drug overdoses in West Virginia in 2021, for which the most recent data is available. Due to the state’s size, it currently leads the country in overdose deaths per capita, even though other states saw far greater numbers of deaths.

In comparison, California saw the highest number of total deaths that year at 10,901.

A 2019 study conducted by researchers at Marshall University found that the state’s opioid epidemic stemmed from a combination of a depressed economy, lack of education and high rate of prescribing and dispensing of prescription opioids.

Making matters worse, the state has grappled with HIV outbreaks since 2019, which can be directly linked to a lack of syringe service programs.

But one organization is trying to improve the bleak situation.

The Women’s Health Center of West Virginia, the state’s former abortion provider, is hoping to implement a syringe service program that would be part of a greater harm reduction program at the clinic, Iris Sidikman, the center’s harm reduction program coordinator, said at a public hearing about the initiative on Thursday in Charleston.

The facility will offer wound care and supplies, referral services, behavioral health care, primary health care, substance use treatment and overdose prevention supplies.

City Council must approve the syringe program, but there’s nothing stopping the facility from offering its other services.

“We’re going to be able to link people to the resources they need, whether it’s housing, ID documents, support groups or more,” said Sidikman, who uses they/them pronouns.

City residents that attended the hearing were divided on whether to implement the program, however. Some raised concerns about potentially helping addicts access drugs and syringe litter, while others favorably advocated for the initiative.

Sidikman said the organization will send people out to look for discarded syringes in the area near the clinic.

Pam Stevens and her husband spoke out against the service, explaining to attendees that their 44-year-old son, Adam, died from a drug overdose. A dirty needle was not involved in his death, Pam said.

“We need harm reduction programs,” Stevens said. “But a dirty needle trade-in program, while not intended, actually provides more opportunities for drug abusers to get more needles to get a fix.”

A syringe service fact sheet on the CDC’s website states that such initiatives help stop substance abuse, support public safety and prevent transmission of blood-borne diseases.

New users of the programs are five times more likely to enter drug treatment and three times more likely to stop using drugs than those who don’t use the services, the fact sheet states.

Danni Dineen, quick response team coordinator with the city’s Coordinated Addiction Response Effort, said syringe services saved her life.

“I want to see the folks I serve here in Charleston have that same opportunity. I want them to have a safe place to go without judgment,” Dineen said at the hearing.

“I want them to have access to sterile supplies so they don’t contract hepatitis C like I did. I want them to have a place where they can dispose of their used supplies.”

Charleston suspended its city-run needle exchange in March 2018. By 2020, 2,089 people were living with HIV in West Virginia. Of those, 139 had been recently diagnosed, according to data from AidsVu, a mapping tool by Emory University’s Rollins School of Public Health that tracks outbreaks.

When a local nonprofit stepped in to provide clean needles and testing for blood-borne diseases, city police investigated them for potentially violating a public ordinance that required harm reduction programs to be approved by the police chief or state, effectively shutting down their operations.

At the time, Mayor Amy Goodwin told Mountain State Spotlight that decisions about whether to implement a syringe service program should be decided by public health and medical professionals.

“If they determine the need is there, then [they] should determine the next step forward,” she told the outlet.

It’s not clear how City Council is likely to vote on the proposal. The public hearing concluded with residents shouting at each other.

Out of 20 council members, 15 are Democrats and five are Republicans. They will cast their deciding ballots next month.