PITTSFIELD, Mass. — It is very unlikely the City Council will change the mind of the Board of Health when it comes to opening a needle exchange. But, the board does want to wait until the council has a chance to weigh in before making its decision.
Board on Wednesday decided to delay a decision on whether to give the authority for a needle exchange to open. The program is intended to help combat a growing number of hepatitis and HIV cases. Tapestry Health currently runs two programs in Western Massachusetts and is in the process of opening ones in North Adams and in Greenfield. The nonprofit has presented multiple times to city officials, with the latest appearance last month.
"I've only received positive endorsement from the people I've spoken to," Board of Health member Jay Green said, but cautioned about being presumptuous about what the City Council members are thinking.
The board is mostly in favor of signing the documents allowing qualified organizations to pursue opening an exchange. Member Cynthia Geyer said the statistics show that the programs reduce the sharing of needles and spread of disease.
"It is not just about providing clean needles, it is a touchpoint to access other services," Geyer said.
"The process needs to move forward. I think it is clear throughout the state that the jurisdiction for this is the Boards of Health," said member Dominica D'Avella.
And that thought was echoed by nearly every member of the board. Member Steve Smith recently visited the exchange in Holyoke and said, "that gave me such a comfort level with opening the same kind of service to the folks here in Pittsfield. I am ready to sign whatever it takes to get the ball rolling."
Yet, the Board of Health doesn't mind waiting a week to hear what the council has to say. The board is losing three members by the end of the month though, so will call a special meeting to take the vote before a new board is formed in January.
The authorization doesn't put a timeline on the opening, it just allows Tapestry to start the process with the Department of Public Health, which funds the program. The funding is still questionable. Gov. Charlie Baker has issued mid-year budget cuts, which reduced Tapestry's funding by 10 percent.
"We are in negotiation with figuring out how much we are able to get for the North Adams program and the Greenfield program, which we are starting up soon," Liz Whynott, director of the Syringe Access Program for Tapestry Health, said. Tapestry will appear before the North Adams Redevelopment Authority on Monday on the use of a city-owned building.
The state Department of Public Health prioritizes the opening of needle exchanges, so Whynott believes there is still state support to open one in Pittsfield.
"This is a regionwide issue and just opening one up in North Adams won't solve the problem at all," Whynott said.
Health Director Gina Armstrong told the board that the city's administration wants a public outreach effort to engage the public. D'Avella said public engagement is "incredibly important" and can be done as the plans for one evolves.
Whynott said Tapestry does its own round of public outreach when looking to open any needle exchange and Pittsfield wouldn't be different.
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