Lawrence Co. health officials say they won’t give up on needle exchange program

LOUISA, Ky. (WSAZ) - There won't be a needle exchange program in Lawrence County, Kentucky, at least not any time soon.

The Fiscal Court rejected a proposal Tuesday morning, even as the county is one of the places most at risk in the entire country for an HIV or Hepatitis C outbreak. It was the 39th county most at risk in a recent study by the CDC.

The vote was a unanimous no from the magistrates in front of a packed house.

It pleased many in attendance like Freddie Daniels, who lost her remaining son to an overdose in 2015.

"I am so glad that they turned this down,” she said. “Thumbs down on this. We have enough trouble."

Judge-Executive John Osborne said he worries about hepatitis and the spread of disease, but he worries about needles more.

"If you give out 40 needles at a time, you're probably are going to see a lot more needles on the ground," Osborne said. “It does bring a lot of people not from this area and that could cause a lot more problems.”

Lawrence County Sheriff’s Office Chief Deputy Mark Wheeler agrees with the vote. He said the county must address addiction issues but doesn’t believe this is the way.

"They've made the best decision that they could for the county at this time,” he said. “I'm not for it."

Public Health Director Debbie Miller said she’s disappointed but not surprised with the result.

“I feel like the Fiscal Court is telling us that they’re not concerned with the fact that Lawrence County has been deemed one of the most vulnerable counties in the U.S. for an HIV or Hepatitis C outbreak.”

Miller said she is sure the recent negative publicity from places like Charleston, West Virginia, played a role.

But she adds this proposal, unlike other programs in the area, would be a true exchange. She calls it the “perfect model.” Addicts could only get new needles by bringing in their old ones. They would also get a sharps container for safe disposal.

Peer support specialists would also be on hand and could get addicts into treatment that very day. She cited statistics which show addicts are five times more likely to get treatment if there is a needle exchange program.

She said officials had talked about exchanging about 40 needles a week, which would be enough for a week’s supply for most addicts because many use about five to seven a day. She also said she offered to find a different location and to use retractable needles if that could garner enough support.

"The bottom line is no matter how uncomfortable these syringe exchange programs make us all feel, and they do all make us somewhat uncomfortable, they are proven to save lives," Miller said.

But residents like Kelli Hanshaw aren't so sure.

"As a mother, you always worry. And the drug epidemic is rampant."

Hanshaw said a friend picked up about a dozen needles at the park recently.

"It makes me mad."

But Miller isn't giving up her quest.

"Absolutely, we'll not stop,” Miller said. “We'll try to educate the public."

Osborne said it will take drastic proof to change minds of the magistrates, otherwise a new fiscal court.

"Politics change, it's an election year,” he said.

The Board of Health approved the proposal in September 2016, and the Louisa City Council gave their approval in July 2017. The Fiscal Court vote was the final hurdle.

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