BLUEFIELD — The Mercer County Health Department’s needle exchange program has been offered since September 2019 and continues, but new legislation will “cripple” some programs and possibly end others.
Roger Topping, administrator of the health department, said the program did not go on hiatus during the pandemic, continuing to offer a “one for one” needle exchange, providing a clean needle to addicts in order to prevent the spread of diseases like Hepatitis C and HIV. In October 2020, Southern Highlands Mental Health Center came on board to provide counseling to those who ask for it.
“The West Virginia Legislature passed a new bill in the past legislative session that will cripple some needle exchange programs and many needle exchange programs will cease to exist,” Topping said. “With Mercer County being listed by the CDC as a potential outbreak county for HIV and with other counties experiencing outbreaks of HIV now, why would legislators pass a bill that surely will allow for the increase in HIV cases statewide? What are they thinking?”
The problem, according to critics of the legislation, is the stricter requirements that may lead to people using dirty needles and the requirements come at a time when the state is experiencing a surge in HIV cases.
Before Gov. Jim Justice signed Senate Bill 334 into law last week, the American Civil Liberties Union’s West Virginia chapter sent a letter on behalf of nearly 300 doctors, nurses, recovery coaches, clergy and others who work with people directly affected by injection drug use urging him to veto it.
The letter said the bill will wipe out exchange programs and result in more lives lost while West Virginia “has by far the nation’s highest death rate from drug overdoses.”
“West Virginia has been seen as a model nationwide for our rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine and our response to the pandemic. You wisely listened to public health professionals and the CDC when leading the state on these issues,” the letter said. “This is no less a public health crisis. People in this state are dying from HIV and other bloodborne diseases transmitted by injection drug use.”
Senate Bill 334 includes a myriad of “harm reduction” rules, including providing license application requirements and process; establishing program requirements; providing procedure for revocation or limitation of the syringe services programs and requiring a syringe services program to coordinate with health care providers.
Topping said a problem with the bill is also a requirement to add therapy and that may not be possible.
“They (therapists) may not be available and you have to shut down because you are required to have this therapy,” he said.
Justice did sign the bill and it will go into effect July 9.
— Contact Charles Boothe at cboothe@bdtonline. com