Syringe access program sees 30 people in first year

BUCKHANNON – In May 2018, the Upshur-Buckhannon Health Department announced a partnership with Mylan Puskar Health Right’s syringe access program. Now, in 2019, the health department is hoping to assist more folks through the varied services offered in the harm reduction program.

The local department and Mylan Puskar Health Right teamed up to introduce Upshur County to the program, which is designed to aid in the prevention of spreading infectious diseases by reducing the sharing of dirty needles, a common practice among intravenous drug users.

In a recent interview with My Buckhannon, Sue McKisic, nurse director for the health department, said the harm reduction program served 30 clients, not including repeat clients, in 2018.

Each month, Mylan Puskar’s staff offers a variety of services for those who utilize the program, whether it be IV drug users or diabetics seeking needles for insulin. With each monthly visit, a social worker, a recovery coach, a registered nurse and a nurse practitioner are available on-site.

“They have the option to speak to any of them and all of them,” McKisic said.

The social worker can offer assistance to people who need to see a doctor and help them get medication through Mylan Puskar Health Right’s free clinic in Morgantown. The nurse practitioner on site provides referrals to infectious disease doctors and counsels folks on the spreading of Hepatitis A, B, C and HIV. With Mylan Puskar and the recovery coaches on hand, McKisic said clients are offered more connections for rehabilitation.

Clients also receive a skin assessment and are counseled on safe sex practices and the importance of safe injection.

“Not exactly showing them how to inject, but make sure you use alcohol, make sure you’re clean, make sure you don’t share needles,” McKisic explained. “This also goes along with the Hepatitis A outbreak in the southern part of the state, so they kind of counsel them on proper hygiene and good hygiene practices.”

When the program was introduced last year, some community members spoke against the services at local government meetings and a public educational forum. They felt the program could lead to more dirty needles found on public grounds, an increase in drug users and open the idea of drug use to community youths.

The health department modified the program in response to those concerns. McKisic said identification is now required to utilize the services.

“There have been some changes in the program that they do have to show some form of ID,” she said. “They can blank their name out, but it must have a birth date. It can be a birth certificate or it can be a photo ID.”

McKisic stressed that no one under the age of 18 has utilized the program.

“We have had no proof of anyone under the age of 18 coming to our program,” she said. “There is no proof of anyone coming that was not a prior user, so the myth that giving out free needles is going to cause people to start using drugs, that’s not been true in Upshur County.”

McKisic said the health department has not been contacted about dirty syringes being left behind at playgrounds, parks and on sidewalks either.

“I have asked different people and I have talked to police chief Matt Gregory, he said no more calls than what they normally had, and they cannot relate them to whether they are from our program or what,” she said. “They are still finding a lot of needles. I think any law enforcement in Upshur County, they are going to tell you when they do these drug busts they’ll find needles. They’re always going to find needles, because that’s what people usually have on them: needles, drugs, money and guns that they shouldn’t have.”

Though the program has only been in the area for less than a year, McKisic said a couple of clients have been asking more questions about treatment and rehab.

“We had one person who was on the verge of tears, stating they just needed to get matters taken care of so if they were away [for treatment] for a prolonged period of time they would still have a home to come to and things like that, but they definitely know that they want to get out of the habits that they’re in and try to make changes in their lifestyle,” she explained.

With this is mind, McKisic said she hopes the program can meet and assist more folks.

“I’m hoping that 2019 brings more people in and that we can get some people in rehabilitation,” she said. “We’re trying to keep up with what’s going on around us and keep our ears and eyes open for any changes that may be taking place.”

Despite the initial backlash, McKisic emphasized that county health departments have a duty to protect residents from the spread of disease.

“According to West Virginia state code, a health department’s main responsible is to control and prevent infectious diseases.”

And with the state still grappling with the opioid epidemic/crisis, McKisic said the program is pertinent in getting folks the help they need.

“We know that there are not a lot of treatment facilities nearby, so that’s one reason we partnered with Mylan Puskar Health Right, because they do have connections to in-state and out-of-state facilities,” she said. “I think they have a pretty good placement rate. If someone says, ‘I am ready to go today,’ I think they could probably get that worked on and maybe get them into a hospital setting for a day or two so these people don’t back slide, and continue to work to get them where they need to go.”

McKisic added, “There are a lot of ways that we can help in this, just by getting these people in here and letting them know we care (and) reducing the stigma that’s attached to them.”

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