PITTSFIELD, Mass. — 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 St.
The intent is to reduce harm to those using intervenous drugs by providing sterile needles. The program opened on Sept. 4 and enrollment has been growing ever since.
"When they come back for subsequent visits, it is considered a re-enrollment. We've had 29 instances of returning," said BHS Director of Infection Prevention and Control Michael Perreault.
Perreault said only one person enrolled in September. But in October, a dozen more joined, and 16 more joined in November. So far this month, two more have joined the program bringing the total number to 31. Of those 31, many of them are returning.
"The more we get out there, the more we can connect to our services," Perreault said. "We want to keep increasing. We really want to get out there."
Part of what is called Healthy Steps, the program starts with a risk assessment. The enrollee visits with a counselor and learns about how to reduce the risk of catching and spreading diseases including connecting them with help to break the addiction.
It is particularly been cited as a way to reach the population of intravenous drug users who aren't ready to seek out an addiction program — a notoriously difficult segment of the population to reach. The hope is to protect them while they are still using and eventually get them into a rehabilitation program.
Two individuals feel they are close to being ready to enter a rehabilitation program to treat the drug addiction, Perreault said of those using the syringe exchange.
"We carry on with those discussions. Depending on where the person is, what their situation is, we will be in contact with McGee [Recovery Center] or other social services," Perreault said.
Healthy Steps does testing for disease and Perreault said he is finding Hepatitis C showing up the most often. The counselors work with those found to have it to reach the medical assistance needed.
Slowing the spread of diseases goes beyond just those who use intervenous drugs. Perreault said the program provides new needles in exchange for used needles. He said recently an individual had brought in 14 needles after only being given 10.
"That is four extra needles that aren't on a street, that aren't disposed of inappropriately," he said, specifically citing needles being left in parks where children can step on them.
Further, Perreault said he chose ones that have the needles attached — rather than detachable. He said the detachable needles can be small and remain in a pocket when first responders are responding to somebody with one. That first responder is then more likely to be stabbed when reaching into pockets.
But, by having it attached, there is a greater chance that the first responder will be made aware of it when patting the individual down or by seeing it.
"We are also keeping first responders safe," he said.
Perreault said the program is also looking to prevent overdose deaths. Healthy Steps will soon be distributing the overdose-reversing drug Narcan. That shipment first arrived on Friday.
The program is confidential for attendees and the hope is to both keep the community safer but also get those who are using drugs in rehabilitation programs.
"People don't always know what people are involved with and it is my job to keep them safe," Perreault said.
Such programs have been highly controversial, including the discussion on whether or not one should be opening in Pittsfield. The city and the Board of Health both fully backed the program and on Wednesday voiced praise that it was tackling the issues it had wanted when voting in favor of it.
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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