According to an official from the North Carolina Department of Health a syringe exchange program is far from a certainty in Surry County.
That word comes after Surry County Director of Health and Nutrition Samantha Ange told the Surry County Board of Commissioners Surry County was a potential site for a pilot program involving syringe exchanges with drug users.
Jim Jones, a spokesman for the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services, said that though Ange’s letter pointed to the possibility of running a federally funded pilot program in Surry County, there is currently no pilot program in North Carolina.
Furthermore, Jones said that there is no recommendation to start a syringe exchange program prepared to be presented to Gov. Pat McCrory. “Perhaps there has been a misunderstanding of what was intended,” said Jones.
Ange had provided a letter to the Surry County Board of Commissioners at the board’s meeting Monday night. The letter, meant for informational purposes, stated that the acting N.C. Health Director had contacted the Surry County health department “in regards to piloting a needle exchange program.”
The letter went on to state that “this pilot program has not yet been presented to the Governor, but it is the intent of the N.C. Department of Public Health to gauge interest in the most vulnerable counties prior to seeking Gov. McCrory’s approval.”
Ange’s letter concluded by stating that a Board of Health sub-committee was “in strong favor of piloting this program.” Ange also stated that she anticipated the Board of Health, as a whole, being favorable to a syringe exchange program initiative.
Surry County Commissioner Larry Phillips conveyed his concerns regarding the program to fellow commissioners, saying that without tying the program to an addiction recovery program or counseling services “we’re just saying here’s another needle.”
“There is a fine line between help and enabling when trying to help addicts,” commented Phillips. Phillips also said he has concerns about the venue in which the program would be housed.
“If it’s to be housed at our (the county’s) health department we would have people there for health and social services while others are walking in with dirty needles,” said Phillips.
According to Mary Beth Levin, who is an associate professor at the Georgetown University School of Medicine, there is no federal funding available at present for a syringe exchange program. Levin, who is an advocate of syringe exchange programs, stated that there has been a federal ban, which was lifted from 2009 to 2011, on needle exchange programs since 1988.
According to Levin 81 to 84 percent of needle exchange programs have been funded by local and state governments. Levin said that the statistic “demonstrates that needle exchange programs are not controversial” and have received the backing of localities throughout the United States.
Levin stated that Congress is considering a partial lift on the ban, but she went on to state that approval of the lift is likely several months away.
Levin, who has authored articles for organizations such as the Foundation for AIDS Research, also provided a “fact-sheet” regarding syringe exchange programs. The document states that if the ban on syringe exchange programs were to be lifted it would require no additional federal funding.
Instead, the document states that a lift of the ban would simply “allow localities to spend their federal prevention dollars as they see fit.” Additionally, Levin’s fact-sheet states that for every one dollar invested in a needle exchange program, seven dollars is saved in HIV treatment costs.
Additionally, Levin said that almost all programs are tied to drug treatment, either through the entity that implements the exchange program or with a referral to a program offering treatment services. Levin said that needle exchange programs are 25 percent more effective than similar programs in serving as a bridge to getting injection drug users the help they need.
Andy Winemiller is a staff writer at the Mount Airy News. Andy can be reached at (336) 415-4698 or [email protected]