UPDATE: Reviews of Needle Exchange audit released by KCHD

By  | 

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (WSAZ/AP) -- UPDATE 9/20/18 @ 10:53 p.m.
A WSAZ Investigation about the Kanawha Charleston Health Department prompted an audit by the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources.

Thursday night independent reviews of that audit commissioned by the KCHD Board Members were released.

WSAZ's Investigation was launched after first responders and community members were raising concerns about needles being improperly discarded and causing a nusiance and public safety issue.

In March of 2018 the KCHD enacted a self-imposed suspension of the program, that gives clean needles to drug users to cut down on the spread of diseases.

The self-imposed suspension came after Police Chief Steve Cooper sent a list of seven rules to the health department on how the needle exchange program had to be run in order to stay compliant with city code.

In May the Harm Reduction Program was suspended by the DHHR after an audit revealed issues with the program including data errors including "incorrect data analysis resulting in misinformation to the public," patient ID numbers shared among multiple patients, a lack of a steering committee as outlined in a program procedure manual, increase in syringe litter "viewed as a threat to public safety," and visitors to the clinic included 20 percent unknown and 46 percent via a proxy.

KCHD leaders questioned and disputed much of the audit. Thursday they revealed the results of seven new assessments of the state's audit done by medical professionals and others who are leading similar needle exchange, or HARM reduction programs.

The reports reveal that in-part the needle exchange program grew rapidly, showing the need was there. It also goes on to say staff was too overworked to be able to collect accurate data, pointing the finger back at the state saying more money and better training is needed for these types of programs.

The review also said there was no data provided by critics of the exchange program showing increases in needle injuries or a rise in drug use.

At the meeting Thursday KCHD Board President Brenda Isaac said that they didn't plan to spend much time on the report because the program is no longer in operation and there are no plans to bring it back.

UPDATE 9/11/18 @ 2:51 p.m.
A West Virginia needle exchange program has no plans to restart.

Kanawha-Charleston Health Department board President Brenda Isaac told The Charleston Gazette-Mail on Monday the program won't be reinstituted.

The department suspended it in March after Charleston Mayor Danny Jones and first responders called for its closure over concerns about increased needle litter and other issues.

A WSAZ investigation led to the program being shut down in the first place. Back in February, we uncovered what police called an "increasing" number of needles being found in public places.

UPDATE 5/17/18 @ 11:55 p.m.
Kanawha-Charleston Health Department Board members are questioning and disputing the audit that led to the loss of their needle exchange program certification.

"There are a number of statements we have concerns about, so we are having this report reviewed by national experts," KCHD Board President Brenda Isaac said.

The audit from the state Department of Health and Human Resources revealed sloppy record-keeping, no plan to keep first responders and other community members safe from needle litter and no proof that any addicts actually got treatment. The state's chief health officer Dr. Rahul Gupta says he stands by the audit and feels that KCHD missed the opportunity to help people.

The needle exchange program has been on a self-imposed suspension since March when Charleston Police Chief Steve Cooper said that strict guidelines must be followed or he would shut down the program.

"The program isn't in existence, and of course that made the evaluation hard to do, because a big part of it should have been talking to the participants," Isaac said.

The hope of KCHD board members was to bring the program into compliance, but now it appears that plan is no longer in play.

"We have no intentions of, at this point, restarting the syringe services program." Isaac went on to say, "there's a very unpleasant, negative atmosphere out there right now around doing this program, so it's indefinitely suspended and I don't know whether it'll come back or not."


UPDATE 5/17/18 @ 12:30 a.m.
West Virginia's top doctor says a program that was supposed to be a gateway to treatment for addicts did not adequately accomplish that goal.

Chief Health Officer Dr. Rahul Gupta says needle exchange programs, in general, are an important tool in the fight against the opioid epidemic.

But after an audit from Gupta's office revealed sloppy record-keeping, no plan to keep first responders and other community members safe from needle litter and no proof that any addicts actually got treatment, he says the Department of Health and Human Resources had to take away the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department's certification for such a program.

"At least 100 people asked or expressed an interest for services of treatment," Gupta said. "We couldn't find evidence that a single patient actually got the treatment."

"In essence, we saw that there were a lot of missed opportunities to help people more."

When WSAZ started investigating the needle exchange program back in February, leaders with the KCHD held up their program as the gold standard; saying in interviews that people from across the country had visited to see how their program was run.

But after health leaders pulled the program's certification, the example it's now setting is not what anyone intended.

Gupta says the audit should serve as a teaching moment for other needle exchanges.

"We certainly ask each and every one of them to look at this report, review it, and if there are any tweaks or changes they feel they need to make, this is a great opportunity," Gupta said.

Leaders at the KCHD will need to make several changes before they can re-apply for their needle exchange certification.

State health leaders say -- once in compliance -- the re-application process would take about 30 days.

The Kanawha County Board of Health is scheduled to discuss the status of their harm reduction/needle exchange program at a regularly scheduled meeting Thursday, which begins at 4:30 p.m.


UPDATE 5/14/18 @ 4:38 p.m.
The Kanawha-Charleston Health Department's Harm Reduction Clinic is now officially suspended by the state of West Virginia.

On Monday, the Department of Health and Human Resources Bureau for Public Health Harm Reduction Coordinator sent a letter to KCHD notifying them that they have completed an evaluation into the program.

The letter states that based on the findings, the immediate suspension of the Harm Reduction Program certification is warranted.

The reasons for suspension cited by the DHHR include a failure to build and maintain community support, lack of data indicating drug users were informed of other programs, insufficient evidence to support the safe recovery and disposal of needles and an insufficient evidence regarding the total numbers and types of referrals made to drug treatment.

WSAZ first reported the findings from the evaluation on Friday, May 11.

The evaluation stemmed from a request by Charleston Mayor Danny Jones and Interim Health Officer Dr. Dominic Gaziano.

KCHD can reapply for certification when there is evidence that the areas of concern have been addressed.



UPDATE 5/11/18 @ 5:55 p.m.
Kanawha County’s embattled needle exchange program faces loss of certification from the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources.

The agency reports that it found multiple issues, including the following:

  • Data errors including “incorrect data analysis resulting in misinformation to the public”

  • Patient ID numbers shared among multiple patients

  • A lack of a steering committee as outlined in a Program Procedure Manual

  • Increase in syringe litter “viewed as a threat to public safety”

  • Visitors to the clinic included 20 percent unknown and 46 percent via a proxy.

Less than 24 hours ago, in a follow-up to our investigation “Needles Everywhere,” we uncovered similar issues with the program.

We found that as early as December 2016 city officials were already telling health department leaders they had concerns. One email from that month shows complaints about needles found in Charleston parking garages.

Keep checking WSAZ Mobile and WSAZ.com for the latest information.



UPDATE 5/10/18 @ 7:30 p.m.
As Charleston's first responders began finding needles by the dozens, and as innocent people started getting stuck more often, documents WSAZ obtained from the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department show employees knew the issues with their needle exchange were escalating.

"I think, if we made a mistake, we probably were not quite rapid enough in responding to and addressing some of those concerns," KCHD spokesperson John Law said.

Back in February, our original WSAZ Investigation uncovered -- what police called -- an "increasing" number of needles being found in public places.

We kept digging, combing through more than 3,200 emails, meeting reports and other health department records.

We found that, as early as December 2016, city officials were already telling health department leaders they had concerns. One email from that month shows complaints about needles found in Charleston parking garages.

KCHD leaders offered ideas for help. But four months later, in March 2017, further documentation showed needles were still being found.

By November 2017, the county health director at the time -- Dr. Michael Brumage -- was sending messages to staff noting an "uproar over syringes in public spaces."

That uproar boiled over in January this year, when a 5-year-old accidentally stuck herself with a bloody needle in a restaurant bathroom.

Less than a week later, needle exchange program director Tina Ramirez emailed Brumage saying she was hearing concerns about syringes on a "daily basis." Ramirez wrote "this is definitely getting out of hand."

Dr. Brumage responded, calling the idea of marking needles with bar codes to help the KCHD track which were theirs "stupid," and indicating concern that they'd be traceable back to the health department.

Dr. Brumage, who is now an Assistant Dean at the WVU School of Public Health, said in a statement, "There was never an active effort to stop syringes being traced to the program."

We also uncovered an email in which Brumage suggested offering addicts incentives to pick up needles off the streets themselves by offering to give them one clean needle for every dirty needle returned; with no limit.

That idea never materialized.

However, Charleston Mayor Danny Jones, who has fought to criminalize needles, says the health department put the program above public safety.

"They would go to any lengths to try to minimize the damage," Jones said.

After the program came under fire, more documents show the health department referred to WSAZ's original investigation as "unfavorable," and began searching for positive stories to be put on social media.

Another email shows staff requesting data to support the program's existence.

Law says keeping the program running was not prioritized over public safety. He says they work in concert with each other.

"Keeping the program running is public safety because it's preventing the spread of disease by needles," Law said. "This whole opioid crisis ... has everyone sort of confused about a positive way to solve it, we tried to address it through a needle exchange, the needles became very tangible and very political and that didn't do it."

In the weeks after our first story, Charleston's Police Chief imposed strict rules that led to the exchange being temporarily shut down last month.

Health department leaders still hope to bring it back.

"I think everyone that's involved is very well-meaning and wants what's best for Charleston," Law said.

But Mayor Jones and first responders say the program has violated the public's trust, which will make it tough for those opposed to the exchange to ever welcome it back.

"I would have liked to have never heard from them," Jones said. "I wish we had never involved ourselves in this."

Charleston firefighters say they had a surge of fires in abandoned homes before the needle exchange program closed. Since then, they say they've only had two fires in the past 40 days.

Meanwhile, KCHD leaders say it's too early to tell what kind of effects the exchange's closure have had on infection rates of hepatitis B, hepatitis C and HIV.



UPDATE 3/28/18 @ 4:59 p.m.
After an emergency meeting Wednesday afternoon, the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department has decided to continue their suspension of the needle exchange program.

The board voted to continue the suspension until their next meeting. It's currently scheduled for May 17 but Board of Health President Brenda Isaac says she may call another emergency meeting before that.

The program was suspended Monday after Charleston Police Chief Steve Cooper released a list of seven rules for the department to follow or else he said he would shut down the needle exchange. The chief has this power due to city code from an ordinance created in September 2015 that made needles legal in Charleston city limits.

The rules created by Chief Cooper include only using retractable needles, all visitors must be advised of rehabilitation services offered, participants must show a photo ID, they must be tested for blood-borne illnesses, it will be a one-for-one exchange and KCHD will be required to submit a monthly report to the chief. Participants would also have to live in Kanawha County to participate in the program.

On Wednesday, board of health members said they weren't prepared to follow all of those rules before they became effective April 2. They also say they are seeking legal advice about liabilities in forcing people to be testing for blood-borne illnesses.

In the meantime, board members say they will work with local first responders and city/county officials to see what they can do about the program.

UPDATE 3/26/18 @ 3:37 p.m.
After new rules were requested by the Charleston Police Department on Monday, the Kanawha Charleston Health Department has announced that they are suspending the needle exchange program.

On Monday, Police Chief Steve Cooper sent a list of seven rules to the health department on how to conduct the needle exchange program. He says he has the authority under city code to implement these changes.

The rules were to be effective April 2.

After the rules were dropped off by the Charleston Fire Department on Monday, President of the Kanawha-Charleston Board of Health Brenda Isaac announced that the department would suspend the needle exchange portion of their harm reduction program. This is effective immediately.

The rules created by Chief Cooper include only using retractable needles, all visitors must be advised of rehabilitation services offered, participants must show a photo ID, they must be tested for blood-borne illnesses, it will be a one-for-one exchange and KCHD will be required to submit a monthly report to the chief. Participants would also have to live in Kanawha County to participate in the program.

Keep checking WSAZ Mobile and WSAZ.com for the latest information.



UPDATE 3/26/18 @ 2:47 p.m.
The city of Charleston is working to make changes to the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department's Needle Exchange Program after City Council tabled a vote to make needles illegal inside city limits.

On Monday, Mayor Danny Jones hosted a news conference alongside Police Chief Steve Cooper and the Charleston Fire Department.

Cooper said he created what he believes to be reasonable rules that he deems necessary and appropriate to implement and continue the operation of the health department's needle exchange.

Those rules include only using retractable needles, all visitors must be advised of rehabilitation services offered, participants must show a photo ID, they must be tested for blood-borne illnesses, it will be a one-for-one exchange and KCHD will be required to submit a monthly report to the chief. Participants would also have to live in Kanawha County to participate in the program.

The rules are to become effective on April 2. Cooper says failure to implement and adhere to the rules constitutes a violation of city code and may result in the closure of needle exchange.

During the news conference, Mayor Jones released a timeline of the city's efforts to resolve needle exchange safety issues with the health department. The city was interested in having the department switch to a retractable needle pilot program.

Jones said in late September 2017 the Charleston Fire Department expressed concern to the health department about the rising number of needles in abandoned houses.

Then on Oct. 13, 2017, the mayor said fire department leadership and the city attorney called KCHD about the complaints and to see if needles can be tracked. They agreed with the department to think about possible solutions and to regroup in a few weeks.

The timeline then shows that in November 2017, the city held a conference call with Dr. Michael Brumage about implementing a retractable needle pilot program. Charleston Fire Department had found a manufacturing partner. The city says the program would have allowed for identification of the source of needles. The health department told the city they could not afford more expensive retractable needles but said they would consider the program if the needles were donated.

On Dec. 1, the city says CFD identified a manufacturer in Texas to donate the needles. The health department said they would need 250,000 needles for six months.

They say on December 14 there was a meeting between the city, KCHD and Retractable Technologies about using their product in the needle exchange. A tentative agreement was made.

The city says on Jan. 16, KCHD held a meeting without them to change the retractable pilot program to only include 10-12 patients and that they would start on April 1.

On Feb. 19, the city says they called Retractable Technologies and were told the pilot program may not happen. The city says the health department wants John Hopkins to do the data collection and the manufacturer did not agree with the collection method. KCHD also said patients might not like the retractable needles.

WSAZ previously reported that on March 5, Mayor Danny Jones introduced an ordinance to Charleston City Council to make possession of needles for illicit drug use illegal under city code.

Jones also announced Monday that he has sent a letter to the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources, asking for an independent audit and review of the needle exchange program at KCHD.

Kanawha County Commission President Kent Carper released the following statement:

“I applaud Charleston Police Chief Steve Cooper’s initiative as a common sense approach to help mitigate the issue with thousands of discarded, dirty needles in Charleston and Kanawha County. His sound regulation, in my judgment, simply requires the Kanawha Charleston Health Department to do what it should have already been doing, and what it had promised to do all along."



UPDATE 3/19/18 @ 8:39 p.m.
Charleston City Council members voted Monday night to delay a vote on a bill that if passed would have made needles illegal in the city of Charleston.

The vote will now take place in 60 days.

Members say they will take up the issue again at a meeting in May. Several council members voiced concern that they've only had two weeks to consider an issue that they believe deserves more time and consideration.

Police and fire fighters in the city of Charleston packed city council chambers Monday night ahead the vote.

They are concerned about the number of needles being improperly discarded around the city of Charleston, many of which, they say, have come from the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department's needle exchange program. The program gives clean needles to addicts to help cut down on the spread of diseases and they say the numbers show the program is working.

Based on the latest numbers made available, the needle exchange program has a 63 percent return rate of dirty needles.

First responders say the influx of needles at scenes and in places like abandoned homes is making their job more dangerous and changing the way they work. They add that that criminals are using the needles as "booby-traps" to harm officers during arrests.

Community members on both sides of the issue had the chance to speak out before the full council had the chance to vote.

Advocates for keeping needles legal in the city of Charleston say making them illegal will not solve the problem. Traci Strickland, who works with the homeless and addicted, said that in the council opening prayer members pray for those who are sick, and the addicted are among them.

Charleston Police officer Rob Welsh told council that said that he has had to change the way that he does pat-downs when he is making stops. Welch said he is hesitant and he sees the same hesitancy in other officers.

At the city's finance committee meeting, a meeting before Charleston City Council, Fire and EMS supervisor Dave Hodges gave a presentation on needle issues his workers are seeing. He said that going to the scene of a car accident is more dangerous because they are finding many people leave needles on the seats of their cars.

Hodges told committee members that he feels the safety and well being of first responders and public is being out secondary to that of addicts.

At least one city refuse worker told WSAZ that he was stuck by a needle and now has to have treatments to keep diseases at bay for the next year.

Council members spoke about the pros and cons of the legality of having clean-needles available to addicts.

Some are staunchly against it and were ready to vote to make needles illegal at Monday night's meeting. Some believe that backing the officers and first responders who have spoken out against the needles is the right thing to do.

Councilwoman Karan Ireland said that she doesn't believe the issue should be looked at as either backing the people who are dealing with addiction or backing first responders. She advocated for the 60 days to take a closer look at the program including going on a ride along with members of the Charleston Fire Department.

The next step is for a task force of health officials to be created to help study the issue. The vote will be on May 21.



UPDATE 3/19/18 @ 3:11 p.m.
Hours before a scheduled City Council meeting, Charleston Mayor Danny Jones has told WSAZ that he's hearing council will vote to table a bill to make needles illegal inside city limits.

City Council was expected to vote Monday night on a highly-debated bill that would change rules in Charleston to make syringes and needles illegal. Recently the city has been reporting issues involving the Needle Exchange Program operated by the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department inside city limits.

Jones says tabling the bill would show a lack of courage among city council members. Tabling the bill would mean council members would not be required to vote and would also not have a discussion on the bill.

The council meeting is scheduled to start with the finance committee at 6:30 p.m.

Needle Exchange Program leaders previously told WSAZ that since program began in December 2015, they've distributed 651,428 syringes. Of that amount, 415,812 have made it back to the Health Department. That's a total return rate of about 64 percent.

Chief of Police Steve Cooper says at least 14 city employees have been poked with needles in the past three years. Cooper and Jones have championed outlawing needles from city limits.

The health department did make several changes to the program since our report earlier this month. Since then, visitors have not been allowed to pick up needles for other patients. Previously, well-established clients were able to pick up needles for other well-established clients.

Additionally, all clients now need to show some form of identification to get needles.

Keep checking WSAZ Mobile and WSAZ.com for the latest information.



UPDATE 3/16/18 @ 2:45 a.m.
Four days before a vote that will determine the future of the needle exchange program in Charleston, leaders with the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department provided clarification on the number of needles that have been given out versus the number that have been returned.

The update came during a review of the program at a Kanawha County Board of Health meeting Thursday.

Program leaders say, since the needle exchange began in December 2015, they've distributed 651,428 syringes. Of that amount, 415,812 have made it back to the Health Department. That's a total return rate of about 64 percent.

The gap of 235,616 can largely be traced to participants who utilize the program once and never return. Returning patients bring back about 88 percent of their syringes, according to program leaders.

But Shawn Scott, a foreman with the city's refuse department, says the current overall return rate is unacceptable. He says, for those who pick up trash for a living, the job has never been more hazardous than it is right now, due to an increasing threat of dirty needles.

"I got stuck by one a couple of months ago," Scott said. "I just grabbed it and it went straight through my glove, so now I have to go through four to six months of getting my blood drawn."

"One of our men just got stuck just [Wednesday]," Scott said. "I've been here 23 years and this is the worst it's ever been."

Chief of Police Steve Cooper says at least 14 city employees have been poked with needles in the past three years. Cooper and Mayor Danny Jones have championed outlawing needles from city limits.

City council is expected to vote on an ordinance that would make syringes illegal during their meeting on Monday, March 19. If the ordinance is approved, it would effectively end the needle exchange program at its current location at the Health Department.

During Thursday's meeting, Board of Health President Brenda Isaac said the excess number of needles in public is more of an indication of the scale of the region's opioid epidemic than directly related to the needle exchange program. She said needles were being found throughout Charleston well before the program started.

"We didn't create the crisis with the harm reduction program, we created the harm reduction program to help us deal with the crisis," Isaac said.

Still, Isaac and other Health Department leaders spent a large portion of Thursday's meeting brainstorming ways to help limit the KCHD's footprint on the number of syringes in the city.

Newly-appointed interim health officer Dr. Dominic Gaziano said the board could consider asking for city council's decision to be deferred for 30 days, while temporarily closing the needle exchange program for the same time period.

Gaziano said that would allow health officials and city officials to assess how much, if at all, closing the exchange would help curb the number of needles being found in public. Additionally, he said, it would give the two sides time to meet to come up with a solution that would allow the program to continue.

However, Isaac and many board members said they could not support closing the exchange for any length of time.

"I would be very much opposed to stopping the program for 30 days because the program is working," Isaac said. "It's a good program and it's been proven to be a good program and we owe it to the people coming here not to do that."

Board member Stephen Weber suggested marking the syringes in a way that would identify which needles were actually coming from the Health Department and to help ensure the right syringes were being returned by needle exchange clients.

However, KCHD Prevention and Wellness Director Tina Ramirez pointed out that the needles come sterile, in pre-packaged in bags of ten. She said marking them could cause a contamination, would be labor-intensive.

Other KCHD leaders suggested finding and tracking needle hotspots across Charleston, cataloging the location and conditions of syringes found in public and compiling that information into a GPS database. However, they said, the Health Department currently lacks the manpower for such an extensive project.

Ramirez said the solutions that have the chance to be most effective were the ones that were just implemented last week.

Since then, visitors have not been allowed to pick up needles for other patients. Previously, well-established clients were able to pick up needles for other well-established clients.

Additionally, all clients now need to show some form of identification to get needles.

Ramirez says, as a result of these changes, their number of participants is dropping. She told board members, this week, the exchange only saw about one-third of its typical number of weekly patients.

In an interview after the meeting, Ramirez said she is confident that health leaders and city leaders will be able to come to a compromise.

"We're willing to help do whatever we can to help maintain the program and to also establish it in different parts of the county," Ramirez said. "What we want to make sure is that we add more programs in different parts of the area to just take the focus and the pressure off what we're doing here within the city limits."

Last week, health leaders said they had leased a van, in conjunction with Recovery Point, and were considering taking the needle exchange services on the road, using the van as a mobile unit to provide the services in different communities. Community leaders in Rand, who were considering the service, discussed the possibility at a public meeting this week, where it was widely panned by neighbors.

Beyond the possibility of the mobile unit, no other specific plans for services outside the city of Charleston have been released.

Health leaders say needle exchange programs are successful in preventing the spread of HIV, hepatitis and other infections among intravenous drug users.

Ramirez says the Health Department has been educating council members about their services and says they will have representatives at Monday's council meeting to answer any questions.


UPDATE 3/15/18 @ 10:58 p.m.
The Charleston Fraternal Order of Police has released their stance on the needle exchange program run by the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department.

On Thursday, President Erick Miller released the letter the FOP Capital City Lodge No. 74 sent to Charleston City Council.

They say there is a major safety concern for officers due to the decriminalization and increased amount of syringes on the streets.

This letter comes before a vote is expected by Charleston City Council Monday night. At the last meeting, Mayor Danny Jones introduced an ordinance to make needles illegal again within city limits.

The FOP letter to council says they are in support of criminalizing unlawful possession of syringes.

They say officers are responding to 911 calls just to collect syringes that are left in public places. This has placed a large burden on the police department to answer the increased amount of calls related to intravenous drug use along with the increased risk to the officers who are tasked with answering them, according to the statement.

On Wednesday, the Charleston Professional Firefighters Association Local 317 released a similar statement against the needle exchange program being in Charleston.

Earlier this month, leaders at the Health Department made some changes to the program, which was originally put in place to prevent the spread of infections like HIV and hepatitis.

Under the changes, visitors will not be allowed to pick up needles for other patients. Previously, well-established clients were able to pick up needles for other well-established clients.

Additionally, all clients will now need to show some form of identification to get needles. A spokesperson says the acceptable forms of ID will be "broad" -- replicating West Virginia's voter identification law.



UPDATE 3/14/18 @ 1:37 p.m.
The Charleston Professional Firefighters Association has released a statement about the growing concerns of the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department Needle Exchange Program.

On Wednesday, the Local 317 said the program has seen an increase risk to our member's safety and interferes with member's ability to provide responses to actual emergencies in Charleston.

They say it is estimated that 240,000 needles are unaccounted for per year with the program. Firefighters have reported finding those needles within and around vacant structures.

WSAZ previously reported that Charleston Firefighters had changed their practices to spray the ground first when entering a structure on fire to remove any needles.

In the release on Wednesday, firefighters said that needle kits given out by the KCHD have been found at the sites of many opioid overdose scenes, including those with deceased patients.

They say the needle issue has caused a misuse of the cities vital safety resources when they have to respond to an non-emergent call to secure improperly disposed needles.

Local 317 says they are not asking for the program to be eliminated, they would like it moved out of Charleston.

Earlier this month, leaders at the Health Department made some changes to the program, which was originally put in place to prevent the spread of infections like HIV and hepatitis.

Under the changes, visitors will not be allowed to pick up needles for other patients. Previously, well-established clients were able to pick up needles for other well-established clients.

Additionally, all clients will now need to show some form of identification to get needles. A spokesperson says the acceptable forms of ID will be "broad"; replicating West Virginia's voter identification law.

UPDATE 3/8/18 @ 12:45 a.m.
The number of needles, scattered throughout Charleston, continues to concern first responders like Cpl. Andrew Foster of the city's police department.

"If I had the choice to get poked with a needle or face someone with a gun I would, one hundred times over, face the individual with the gun," Foster said. "I have fellow officers that couldn't go home and kiss their wife, kiss their child, because they were poked with a dirty needle."

Time and again, officers like Cpl. Foster find the needles found in public places are coming from the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department's needle exchange program.

"Since this needle exchange, I've seen an insane number of needles laying around," Foster said. "I've seen duffle bags full of needles."

But now, three weeks after a WSAZ investigation into the number of needles, leaders at the Health Department are making a pair of changes to the program, which was originally put in place to prevent the spread of infections like HIV and hepatitis.

"We want to be able to continue preventing that disease while still being very acutely aware of what people in the community are saying," KCHD spokesperson John Law said.

Beginning on Thursday, March 8, visitors will not be allowed to pick up needles for other patients. Previously, well-established clients were able to pick up needles for other well-established clients.

Additionally, all clients will now need to show some form of identification to get needles. Law says the acceptable forms of ID will be "broad"; replicating West Virginia's voter identification law.

But, while Health Department leaders hope the changes will cut down on the problems, Charleston Police Chief Steve Cooper says he still supports Mayor Danny Jones' recent push to make needles illegal in the city limits.

"It's too little too late," Cooper said of the program changes. "These needles are now being used as booby traps."

Cooper says, increasingly, when his officers conduct standard pat-downs to check for weapons on suspects, they're at risk of being poked by a dirty needle.

"Some of our more notorious criminals are actually bending these needles at a 90-degree angle and placing them in slits in their clothing, in backpacks, in the door jams of cars...to make it more likely that officers are going to be poked," Cooper said.

Lt. David Hodges, EMS Director for the Charleston Fire Department, says firefighters are encountering more instances where they find needles in abandoned homes, purposefully positioned with the sharp end up in the air. Hodges and Cooper say the trap design is reminiscent of punji sticks; a common trap in the Vietnam War.

"I completely understand they have a goal of reducing infectious diseases for folks that are IV drug users," Hodges said. "But we're increasing it for first responders."

According to a Health Department spokesperson, about half a million needles have been distributed since the program opened in December 2015. Between 360,000 and 380,000 have been returned; a rate of 72-76 percent. However, the return rate of return patients is higher, at 88 percent.

Health Department officials say they are in the process of completing an internal review of the needle exchange program, brought on by concerns in the community and say they may soon announce further changes.

Meanwhile, an ordinance that would make needles illegal is currently being considered by City Council. It will be up for a vote in two weeks.


UPDATE 3/7/18 @ 3:27 p.m.
The Kanawha-Charleston Health Department is initiating new guidelines for it's harm reduction program.

This comes almost three weeks after a WSAZ Investigation into the needle exchange program.

Health department officials say that starting Thursday, March 8, a client will have to present in-person to be able to receive syringes. Previously, well-established clients were able to pick up syringes for other clients.

KCHD says clients will be required to provide identification before obtaining syringes. They will be modeling their identification requirements on those included in West Virginia's voter identification statute.

On Monday, Charleston Mayor Danny Jones introduced an ordinance to criminalize the possession of hypodermic syringes. Dr. Michael Brumage and Police Chief Steve Cooper also spoke about the program.

UPDATE 3/5/18 @ 11:27 p.m.
The Charleston City Council could consider a bill to criminalize the possession of hypodermic syringes and needles, eliminating the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department’s needle exchange program.

Charleston Mayor Danny Jones is pushing for the measure because of an increase in needles found in the Capital City.

The council’s Finance Committee listened to presentations from Dr. Michael Brumage, the former executive director and health officer for the department, and Charleston Police Chief Steve Cooper regarding the effects of the program.

Brumage, who now serves as director of the state Office of Drug Control Policy, said the needle exchange is part of a larger harm reduction effort, which includes recovery as well as testing for HIV. As part of the anonymous needle exchange program, individuals receive materials including syringes, which are counted after a participant returns used needles to the department’s Charleston office. If a person fails to return the same number of needles given to them, they receive fewer needles at their next visit.

According to Brumage, West Virginia has the highest Hepatitis C infection rate in the country and the second-highest Hepatitis B infection rate behind Kentucky.

“The prescription drug use epidemic has now transitioned completely over in the last few years to an IV drug use epidemic,” he said. “That’s why we’re seeing more IV drug users.”

Brumage said the increase in needles is the result of a transition from the misuse of opioids to heroin. “This whole epidemic is exploding in front of our eyes,” he said. “That’s why three years ago, it wasn’t as bad as it was today.”

Cooper said in his presentation he receives hundreds of complaints a week from business owners and Charleston residents about needles found in public places, noting there are not enough officers to efficiently address illegal drug use.

He added the health department sees 4,000 to 5,000 people as part of the needle exchange program.
“It’s the same size as Baltimore when it comes to needle exchange,” he said. “Baltimore city has 3,300 police officers, I have 150. It’s an unfair burden for a small police department to have to police this many members of a criminal population.”

Cooper asked city department leaders about the presence of needles at the Finance Committee meeting, to which all said this year so far has been the worst they have seen.

“Our business districts are in trouble, our mall’s in real trouble,” he said. “It’s gotten out of control.”
Cooper said the police department has talked to the health department about the spread of needles.
“There’s been no reciprocity when it comes to working with us to solve these problems,” he said. “It’s come to a tipping point.”

Brumage acknowledged the growing public presence of needles as an issue, but the elimination of the needle exchange would lead to a rise in diseases such as HIV.

“If this goes away, people will die and things will get worse,” he said.

He also said he would be willing to work with the police department and other agencies to address the issue. One solution he noted was the installation of containers solely for disposing of needles. A bin for this purpose is currently installed outside of the health department building.

“We would like to be able to continue to save lives,” he said. “We want to work with everybody and anybody to mitigate the problem.”

The bill was referred to the Finance Committee, which will meet before the next full body meeting on March 19.​

UPDATE 3/1/18 @ 12:40 p.m.
Less than two weeks after a WSAZ Investigation, “Needles Everywhere,” Mayor Danny Jones announced he plans to introduce an ordinance to make needles illegal in the city of Charleston.

The mayor made the announcement during his radio show on WCHS 580, which is also WSAZ’s media partner.

“We are going to introduce a bill in council to do away with the decriminalization of needles,” Mayor Jones said. “We’re going to criminalize them again and call them drug paraphernalia, because that’s what they are.”

The mayor plans to introduce the ordinance at Monday night’s city council meeting. Currently, the city of Charleston is the only city in the Kanawha Valley which has agreed to the current ordinance, making needles legal within city limits. The current ordinance clears the way for the needle exchange program.

In our WSAZ Investigation, police in Charleston said they're seeing hypodermic needles -- used for injecting drugs -- littered in public places across the city. Often they say the needles were given to addicts for free at the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department as part of their needle exchange program.

Many believe the needles are becoming a public health hazard.

Police Chief Steve Cooper says in the last few years, at least 12 city employees, within the refuge and police departments, have been poked by hypodermic needles. He says many of them are still under medical evaluation.

Chief Cooper says city hall gets numerous complaints a day about these needles being found in public places.

Health officials say the Needle Exchange Program helps stop the spread of infections and saves the public money by eliminating the cost of treating uninsured patients for health issues and viruses like hepatitis C, which costs between $70,000 and $90,000 per person.

Health department leaders say the materials for the needle exchange program cost about $250,000 per year, but they say taxpayers are not footing the bill at all.

Materials for the program are completely funded through grants and donations.

Since the WSAZ Investigation aired, we’ve also learned a meeting took place between Charleston Mayor Danny Jones, Police Chief Steve Cooper, Dr. Micahel Brumage and other members of the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department about the HARM Reduction Needle Exchange Program.

Keep clicking on WSAZ Mobile and WSAZ.com for the latest information.



UPDATE 2/27/18 @ 10:08 p.m.
We have an update following our WSAZ Invesitgation "Needles Everywhere."

Charleston City Council member Bobby Reishman confirms to WSAZ that a meeting took place Monday that included him, Charleston Mayor Danny Jones, Police Chief Steve Cooper, Dr. Micahel Brumage and other members of the Kanahwa-Charleston Health Department about the HARM Reduction Needle Exchange Program.

According to Reishman, the group is working to improve the needle exchange program.

The meeting comes one week after a WSAZ Investigation went behind the scenes of the needle exchange program to see the process for obtaining clean needles.

Concerns have been raised after dirty used needles have been found littered throughout the city of Charleston causing health and safety concerns.

At this point nothing is official but Dr. Michael Brumage, who was the director of the KCHD and now serves as the director for the state of West Virginia's office of Drug Control Policy is expected to talk to council about the program at an upcoming meeting.

ORIGINAL STORY 2/19/18 @ 7:32 p.m.
WSAZ Investigates takes a look at a hazard that's putting innocent people's health at risk.

More than ever, police in Charleston say they're seeing hypodermic needles -- used for injecting drugs -- littered in public places across the city.

Often they say the needles were given to addicts for free at the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department as part of their needle exchange program.

While health officials say the program actually makes the community safer, others say the unintended consequences pose a danger to the public.

The examples have been as extreme as a 5-year-old girl accidentally sticking herself with a bloody needle in a restaurant bathroom and a man caught with 50 needles on him in the Charleston Town Center Mall.

"There's definitely more loose needles, there's no doubt about that,” said Charleston Police Cpl. James Deal.

Places they have turned up have ranged from playgrounds and alleyways to abandoned homes.

Deal said they're often coming right from the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department's needle exchange program.

"I'd say the net effect is a negative," Deal said.

In just over two years since the program was started, nearly half a million needles have been handed out free of charge to anyone who wants them.

WSAZ’s Nathan Takitch took a trip to the needle exchange himself.

He had to provide his initials, zip code, and some medical information. Participants are asked if they'd be interested in treatment options.

After that, Takitch was able to get 30 needles -- the maximum amount allowed per week. He also got cotton balls, a tourniquet, alcohol wipes and a container to carry it all in.

The program gets hundreds of visitors every week, but the health department's John Law says the goal is not to enable drug users.

"Needle exchanges are part of the solution to the problem, they are not part of the problem,” Law said. “There definitely are more needles out there because there are more people addicted to opioids and heroin."

The purpose of needle exchange is to try to stop the spread of HIV, hepatitis and other infections among people who would use drugs, even if the program didn't exist.

One addict who didn’t want to be identified said, "This is the best thing to happen to people around here … I've seen people pick up needles off the streets and use 'em. They needed this needle exchange, bad."

She said, though, that she's been inspired to kick her own habit after watching her friends in the needle exchange program get help.

“I know, myself, of 10 people that have gotten completely clean and off the needle since they've been coming here,” the woman said.

But Joseph Campbell, a recovering addict and former needle exchange participant, says while there are benefits for some, others take advantage of the program.

"A lot of people go in and lie and saying that they are new to the program because, when you go in, they give you a certain amount for free the first time and you have to bring so many back," Campbell said.

And even with the program’s return rate at 88 percent, it means over 50,000 needles have never made it back to the health department.

Health officials say -- in stopping the spread of infections -- the needle exchange program also saves the public money by eliminating the cost of treating uninsured patients for things like hepatitis C, which costs between $70,000 and $90,000 per person.

Some first responders still say the drawbacks outweigh the benefits.

Health department leaders say the materials for the needle exchange program cost about $250,000 per year, but they say taxpayers are not footing the bill at all.

Materials for the program are completely funded through grants and donations.



 
Comments are posted from viewers like you and do not always reflect the views of this station. powered by Disqus