HUNTINGTON, W.Va. (WSAZ)- The Cabell County Health Department’s needle exchange program is controversial to many, but numbers show hundreds are using the program and the department has taken in tens of thousands of needles.
The department says they are seeing more needles off the streets after policy changes regarding how to get needles in 2017. The program began in 2015.
In March of 2018, the department says they took in 61,000 needles and distributed 58,000. The previous year, they say more needles were being distributed than coming back, forcing the department to make some decisions on how to handle the program. In August of 2018, the numbers took a shocking turn. The department reported 45,000 needles were returned to the program while 19,000 were distributed.
They say it is impossible to determine which needles were used to inject drugs, as many may be related to medical treatments such as diabetes.
Since the policy changes, the department says first time users are only given 40 needles and they expect to receive 40 back if the person wishes to continue with the program. They also discontinued family members picking up needles for addicts – now addicts must come in themselves to receive the needles. They say program users must also be Cabell County residents and show proof when coming to pick them up.
Addicts are also now given treatment options before leaving the center. Officials hope a simple conversation can steer someone away from needles and drugs altogether.
“If they are really wanting to stop, we can get them in a program today or even tomorrow,” said Health Department Director Dr. Michael Kilkenny. “I hope this means there are less users. Our goal is for nobody to inject.”
Since those numbers were released, the trend remains of more needles returned than given out – usually sitting in the 18,000 range month-to-month.
WSAZ requested access to where the needles are stored after they are used. Health officials showed us a locked closet in the basement strictly approved for only needles and biohazard material. There, they say the needles are picked up twice a month and destroyed – new shipments later coming in to make up for the needles used.
“There are a lot of things going on that are working here in Huntington and things are getting better generally,” said Kilkenny.
The crime rate did drop in 2018. However, in early March of 2019, 28 cases of HIV were confirmed in Cabell County – mostly all avoidable with the use of clean needles.