‘They know they have a problem’, Prather: needle exchange program working, if slowly
Four of the six have visited multiple times, according to Cassie Prather, the department’s director of public health. She said the slow start is due partly to the fact that intravenous (IV) drug users are a “hard population” to reach. Signs posted in the Woodford Detention Center and the emergency room at Bluegrass Community Hospital help get the word out, Prather said.
She acknowledges that some IV drug users, though they’re promised confidentiality at the Health Department, are wary of members of law enforcement somehow learning of their status.
“They are. They are. And that’s one of the reasons we wanted our (needle exchange) program integrated into our (overall) program.
Because they (police officers and deputies) won’t know if you’re here to get condoms, immunizations, needles, sharps containers (used to store used needles) – it’s the same principle, even for condoms,” Prather said.
Prather says she’s asked law enforcement leaders to make sure officers don’t follow suspected users as they leave the Health Department, and that she has a good relationship with the Versailles Police Department and Woodford Sheriff’s Department.
Prather said when IV drug users visit the Health Department the first time, they’re issued cards without identifying information to keep track of how many needles they bring in and take. They must also sign a document pledging that they won’t take drugs on the property.
Funding for the program includes a $9,000 grant from the Agency for Substance Abuse Policy and two federal grants worth a total of $14,500 that will take effect later this year. Program expenses include the costs of 10-packs of 10 needles, bandages, and a variety of pamphlets aimed at letting IV drug users know about the dangers of their habit – and treatment options.
Most of the department’s expense is staff time, which Prather said is a bigger challenge at her department because the needle exchange program is integrated into normal business hours.
“This population may not have the transportation at 8 o’clock on Friday morning, and we’re trying to make it more accessible,” Prather said.
Still, the $23,500 in grant money will easily keep the program running through at least July 1, 2019, she said.
The possibility of using local tax dollars for the program was one reason some were slow to support a program that health experts say cuts the spread of IV-related diseases like hepatitis and HIV. Some also wondered if it was fair to offer free needles to drug users when people with health conditions like diabetes often have to pay for their own. Prather said her staff can help those people, too, and that the sharps containers are free to all.
She said research suggests that some Woodford County IV drug users are going to other area health departments.
“These programs are slow to start. Word of mouth is really the best advertisement with this population. Once you get one person coming in, you hope that they tell the people that they use with that this is available. But people are just a little leery of coming to their own county health department for these services,” she said.
That’s one reason that area health departments, including Prather’s, do not require people enrolled in the needle exchange program to live in the county in which they seek assistance.
“These people (from other counties) are probably here doing drugs with our people, too – our Woodford County residents – and we want to protect everybody. This is not just a county-level problem …” Prather said. “In a nutshell, we’re just trying to prevent the spread of disease.”
Prather said her goal is a “one for one” match for used and clean needles, but that’s not always possible. The maximum given out at one time is 40.
Client numbers and funding figures aside, Prather has another statistic she likes to share with people who are skeptical of needle exchange programs.
“The folks that access these programs are four times more likely to get help. Every person that has come through our doors has at least mentioned, at some point, getting help. They know they have a problem,” Prather said. “That tells me, as a public health practitioner, that these folks are at least contemplating getting help.”
As we continue to explore the drug problem in Woodford County, the Sun would like to interview an IV drug user. We promise confidentiality and will allow that person or persons to choose a different first name for use in the story. If you’re interested, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org or call 873-4131, ext. 13.