County commissioners vote to continue syringe exchange after proposed termination

Grays Harbor County’s syringe exchange program is no longer set to end June 30, after the county commissioners voted 2-1 April 25 to rescind their earlier decision. Commissioners Vickie Raines and Randy Ross voted in favor of the resolution to continue the county-run program, while Commissioner Wes Cormier again voted against it.

The vote took place at the quarterly public health meeting in the Grays Harbor Public Health and Social Services building.

Raines switched from her initial vote in December to end the program on June 30, and said several factors went into her decision. One was that the commissioners didn’t realize in December that the county’s funding for Narcan — a medication that helps lift the effects of opioid overdoses has been widely distributed in the county recently — would have gone away with the syringe exchange because it’s tied to the same grant from the University of Washington.

She also visited the syringe exchange several weeks ago, and said it gave her more confidence that it is a worthwhile program after seeing how the syringe exchange staff also assisted with medical referrals to treatment for individuals.

“It was a very humbling experience, and also challenging experience to see people looking to exchange needles from age 22 to age 70,” said Raines. “But I also listened to the compassion (the staff) had to help individuals there, and give direction on health care for some issues one gentleman had on his face, which looked like some kind of infection up around his eyes.”

The syringe exchange is operated by the county Department of Health out of a converted motor home under the Chehalis River Bridge in Aberdeen once a week, and allows drug users to exchange used syringes, typically for heroin or meth use, for clean ones. It was first started locally in 2004. The idea behind syringe exchanges is that without them, drug users are more likely to use contaminated needles and more easily spread diseases like HIV and Hepatitis C. It also provides an easy disposal site for syringes, and many health officials say it helps reduce the amount of syringes found around town.

The staff at the motor home estimates how many used syringes a visitor brings them, and exchanges them for that amount, although opponents to the syringe exchange complain that it’s not a very exact procedure and say it isn’t always a one-to-one exchange. For 2018, it was estimated that around 940,000 syringes were exchanged. The motor home also refers people to other medical treatment, provides kits of Narcan (and trainings for it), and gives out other supplies, such as condoms, and safe disposal bins. Small metal tins, intended as a sterile way to melt down some drugs instead of clients’ potentially contaminated spoons and other tools that can spread diseases if shared.

In December, Cormier introduced a resolution to end the syringe exchange Feb. 1, giving the reason that he felt it was a double standard to give out syringes that can then be associated with someone’s drug arrest. He also believes it’s an enabling program.

Raines amended the resolution to extend the program’s cutoff to June 30, and said it wasn’t appropriate for the county to run it. The resolution included the goal of finding an outside provider to run the exchange, but no new providers appeared, she said.

“It was researched, and we really didn’t have a new provider step forward,” said Raines. “We weren’t informed at the time, that the Narcan program was tied to it. A lot of these factors played into this, in addition to my being able to attend the needle exchange and seeing first hand what’s going on, I think it’s a positive step forward to continue it. But also, it’s given the opportunity to examine ourselves, and see what changes we can make with the program … going forward.”

Cormier said that since the inception of the syringe exchange, Aberdeen has had 1,794 people arrests for possessing drug paraphernalia, and said that changes should be made to the program, like getting better data on it and how many people utilize the syringe exchange.

“If we have 50 to 100 people consistently turning in syringes for other people, they’re not getting the access to treatment that this program touts,” said Cormier. “If our intent is treatment, we need to know how many people are coming in, and how many are distributing on behalf of someone.”

Multiple people spoke for and against the syringe exchange at the meeting, with opponents saying that the syringe exchange is only adding to the number of contaminated needles found around town and in places they fear their kids and others are dangerously exposed to them.

“Once the needles are issued to these people, they don’t care what happens to them, they just toss them wherever,” said Alicia Healy.

She also complained about the lack of a one-to-one exchange of the syringes, and asked that the motor home be moved to the Grays Harbor Public Health and Social Services parking lot in Aberdeen.

“It’s said that it’s a one-to-one exchange, which is a total crock because nobody’s actually counting them,” said Healy. “It’s a guesstimated system. You guys say it’s dangerous to count them. Well, they’re using the needles, so let them count the needles and actually give a one-to-one exchange.”

Several public health and city officials attended the meeting, including Aberdeen Fire Chief Tom Hubbard who supports the program, and Andrea Vekich, Intensive Case Manager for Coastal Community Action Program. Vekich recalled working for the city of Aberdeen 10 years ago cleaning up downtown, and said the police department told her that the syringe exchange was the reason why she wasn’t finding that many syringes around town.