PITTSFIELD, Mass. — The needle exchange program has collected more than 15,000 dirty needles in the first five months of this year.
According to Berkshire Health Systems Director of Infection Prevention and Control Michael Perreault, that shows the need for the disease prevention program is there.
"Going into this, I don't think was sure what the need was in our community. When I share this with my team at the hospital, this demonstrates that BMC made the right choice by moving forward with the program. Fifteen thousand is a lot of needles to take in, however, if we didn't collect those dirty needles, you have to wonder where these needles would be," he told the Board of Health on Tuesday.
The program, Healthy Steps, opened in September 2017. In just the last four months of that year, 54 people were enrolled and 1,325 dirty needles were collected. It has caught on. In the first five months of this year, 138 more people enrolled.
"For the first five months of 2018, we enrolled an additional 138 people in this program. We've had total entourages, people are coming in multiple times over this time period, we've had 776 visits with our clients," Perreault said.
Not all of them are sticking with it but for good reason. Perreault said the program was there to help 15 people enter recovery programs.
"Our clinic screeners have really been able to build relationships with the clients that come in and I'm happy to report we've assisted with 15 getting into -- when they decided and the time was right for them -- a treatment program," he said.
The program provides a one-for-one exchange of needles. That means someone can bring in one dirty needle and receive one clean one. The hope is that those using intravenous drugs will use clean needles instead of sharing dirty ones to prevent the spread of disease such as Hepatitis C that has been grown locally over recent years.
"We teach them how to use alcohol wipes and minimize the risk of infection and contamination. Most of our numbers are because of clients referring other people," Perreault said.
The program is not only helping prevent those using from catching a disease but also to help the families of those addicted to drugs.
"People that are using substances come from all walks of life and they aren't people that you necessarily would be picking out as a substance user. A significant other may not know their loved one is using. We're keeping people's kids and children safe," Perreault said.
Many are now getting tested. Berkshire Health Systems provided tests for such disease prior to the exchange but the total numbers are increasing. Perreault said in 2017, 662 clients were tested and in 2018, that number is expected to be closer to 800. That has led to a slight increase in finding new cases. He said of those in 2017 tested, less than 4 percent were new cases while so far in 2018, more than 5 percent of those are new cases.
In December, Healthy Steps launched an overdose education class and started to distribute the overdose reversal drug Narcan. In just one month in 2017, 15 people enrolled and there were 12 refills of Narcan. But, nobody reported using it to reverse an overdose.
So far in 2018, 397 people enrolled, there have been 74 refills, and 11 people reported back that the Narcan was used to reverse an overdose.
"We're very happy it is getting into the hands it needs to be in," he said.
The opening of such a clinic was intended to reach a certain population of people - those who were still using but not ready to enter treatment programs. And Perreault believes they've made a lot of headway into that population through its outreach efforts.
Needle exchange programs tend to be controversial and there were plenty in Pittsfield in opposition when the question of whether or not to open one began. Those who oppose it tend to say that it is encouraging drug use and attracting crime. But, those in favor say it is a harm reduction program intended to reduce the spread of diseases and to provide help for those ready to seek treatment.
Already 31 people have enrolled in the local needle exchange program. The state Department of Health allocated grant funds earlier this year to bring a syringe exchange program to the area through Berkshire Health Systems at 510 North Street. The intent is to reduce harm to those using intervenous drugs. The program opened on Sept. 4 and enrollment has been growing ever since.
It took seven months to make the decision but on Wednesday the Board of Health approved a needle exchange program. The board approved the letter authorizing the state Department of Health to pursue a vendor for such a program. The state will now take over the process of funding, issuing a request for proposal, and ultimately opening a site. The issue had been before the board since August, neared a vote in December, and then was pushed until March.
It wasn't long ago when a young man came to the Brien Center looking for help after he had overdosed on heroin. Dr. Jennifer Michaels, the center's medical director, got him into sober housing, meetings, and family support. He "did all the things he needed to do."
The first public engagement session about a needle exchange program is scheduled for Tuesday. The city is considering authorizing a needle exchange program to operate in the city and the Board of Health was close to voting to give that authorization last month. But, the board decided to hold off and in conjunction with the mayor's office launch a series of public sessions to gain additional feedback and inform citizens about the program.
At the request of the mayor and City Council, the Board of Health has put the brakes on the opening of a needle exchange program. Just one month ago the board was ready and planning to vote in favor of giving the authorization to allow Tapestry Health to pursue opening one somewhere in the city in tandem with the state Department of Public Health.
The nonprofit health agency was given approval on Monday night by the Redevelopment Authority to operate out of 6 West Main St., a building owned by the city and formerly used by the School Department. It received approval from the Board of Health in June.
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 of Health does want to wait until the council has a chance to weigh in before making the decision.
The decision whether or not to authorize the state to fund a needle exchange program in the city should come next week. The Board of Health is the authority needed to authorize the program and is expected to take up the topic next Wednesday. Tapestry Health is looking to open one through funding from the state Department of Health to combat the spread of infectious diseases, similar to the one opening in North Adams in the coming months.
City officials are looking into whether a needle exchange program will help halt the spread of infectious diseases. In the face of a heroin epidemic, a needle exchange program is one way to help users avoid spreading diseases - particularly Hepatitis C. Syringe Access Program Director for Tapestry Liz Whynott says her organization currently runs two programs in Western Massachusetts - one in Holyoke and one in Northampton - and provides a way for users of injected drugs to have access to clean
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