As the Charleston City Council prepares for another battle over harm reduction services, the region’s largest medical providers released a joint statement Monday in support of best-practice syringe service programs.
The statement from Charleston Area Medical Center, Thomas Memorial Health System, Family Care and Cabin Creek Health Systems urges city and county officials to “review” current syringe service programs and “develop uniform guidelines.”
“As community health care providers, we support responsible harm reduction programs,” the letter reads. “Needle exchange programs have proven effective in reducing the rates of transmittable diseases such as Hepatitis C and HIV.”
The health systems also urge officials to consider implementing uniform success metrics.
“Responsible harm reduction programs will provide needed services to help protect our broader community, while following best practices of federal and state health officials. This includes proper needle exchange, inventory and disposal procedures,” the letter reads.
Representatives for the groups did not return requests for comment.
Council members on Charleston’s Public Safety Committee are scheduled Thursday to discuss a resolution to survey city first-responders on syringe service programs. The resolution accompanied an amendment to recriminalize needle distribution by organizations not certified by the state. That is expected to be discussed by the same committee later this month.
The policy is targeted toward Solutions Oriented Addiction Response, a grassroots community group specializing in harm reduction services for those who inject drugs and are houseless.
The group is volunteer-run, funded by donations and follows best-practice standards set by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, among other leading public health agencies.
The best-practice model is based on five points: involving people with addiction experience, using a needs-based model where there is not a requirement to return as many needles as one takes, providing expanded services (such as HIV testing) along with needles, collecting data on needs and trends and ensuring program sustainability.
SOAR volunteers say their program meets all these standards.
Critics such as council members Deanna McKinney and Chuck Overstreet, both of whom represent the West Side, said they’re concerns about the equity of SOAR’s programming operating in their neighborhood.
Constituents are upset, Overstreet has said. McKinney said those who live near SOAR’s base at the Unitarian Universalist Church worry about the crowd drawn by SOAR’s events in a Black neighborhood when whites largely make up the group injecting drugs. McKinney said she wants to see more harm reduction services targeted toward Black communities, but does not support syringe distribution.
Others cite worries over needle litter and needlestick injuries, as well as how Charleston’s image could be affected by promoting a syringe service program.
No one tracks needle litter incidents aside from those affecting city employees.
Reports filed with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration show 20 needle-stick injuries among Charleston City employees over the last three years: eight in 2018, two in 2019 and 10 last year. Five cases involved people being stuck while searching belongings. Most cases were punctures from uncapped needles in trash or people pricked while disposing of or bagging needles.
There are no documented cases of people contracting HIV from a discarded needle in a public place, according to the CDC, World Health Organization and dozens of peer-reviewed studies. A 2014 German study found about 100 people worldwide had contracted HIV from a needlestick injury, all them health care workers. There has been just once case in the U.S. since 1999.
Needlesticks are usually only skin deep, limiting the chance of contracting blood-borne diseases. While needles could have dried blood on them, elemental exposure makes it difficult for the virus to survive on discarded needles.
Advocates and public health experts said a more robust syringe service program is needed for the region as HIV and hepatitis rates tied to injection drug use have skyrocketed in Kanawha County over the past three years. Drug overdose cases have remained steady here while declining around the state.
Syringe programs slow the spread of HIV and hepatitis, according to the CDC, the World Health Organization, the National Institute on Drug Abuse, universities and HIV/AIDS researchers. Research from the same groups also indicates syringe programs can reduce needle litter and help transition people into recovery programs.