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Claremont OKs Needle Exchange

Valley News Correspondent
Published: 9/5/2018 11:59:59 PM
Modified: 9/6/2018 11:35:03 AM

Claremont — After a lengthy discussion on Wednesday night, the School Board voted, 5-2, to allow Valley Regional Hospital to host a needle exchange program for people who use intravenous drugs.

The decision came following comments in support of the program by Valley Regional President and CEO Peter Wright and Claremont Police Chief Mark Chase and promises by both to work closely together and with the school district to ensure the program is operated safely.

“My belief is that it is all about harm reduction,” Chase said. “Any little bit that helps people with addiction is a step forward. My position is if it is anywhere, it should be at the hospital.”

The same program, called Project 439, was run by Dartmouth College medical students last summer but had to be shut down after several months when officials became aware that it violated a state law because it was within 1,000 feet of a school on Central Street. The law was amended this year to allow the program to operate at a health care facility and within 1,000 feet of a school if the School Board approves. Valley Regional is next to Disnard Elementary School, and while some may walk past the school to reach the hospital, many have transportation, officials said.

The program will be staffed by volunteers, not hospital personnel. Still to be determined is the exact location at the hospital — the urgent care clinic on Dunning Street is one possibility — and more importantly, the hours of operation, which was a concern for some board members. Wright told the board the plan is two hours a day from 3:30 p.m. to 5:30 p.m for two days a week, which would be after regular school hours. However, when Disnard Principal Melissa Lewis said an after school program runs until 6 p.m., board members suggested later hours or possibly weekend hours, which Wright said will be considered.

Wright promised to work with police, who could provide extra patrols around the area during hours of operation, and the school to ensure a safe environment at all times for the children. He also promised to return to the board if there are any concerns.

“I’m bringing this forward because we need to have it and we are the only facility trained to do it safely,” Wright said. “We want to make the program work and we want to make the community healthier and safer.

“I fully expect to be held accountable,” he said to the board after the vote.

The overarching goal is to keep more dirty needles off the streets, cut down on needle sharing and give services to people that they may otherwise not avail themselves of. These include counseling as well as hepatitis and HIV testing and providing them with the overdose reversal drug naloxone.

“We see our program as a way to get people in for services,” said Laura Byrne, executive director of the HIV/HCV Resource Center in Lebanon, which operates needle exchange programs in White River Junction and Springfield, Vt.

Board member Steve Horsky and Vice Chairwoman Rebecca Zullo voted against the proposal, with Horsky voicing the strongest opposition.

At one point, as the discussion wound down, he called the proposal “disrespectful” to Claremont families and kids and suggested the Newport Health Center might be a better location because it is not near a school, even though transportation could be an impediment to some who need to access the program. Horsky said some already drive to facilities in Springfield and White River Junction.

“If they truly want to change, they will drive to Newport Health Center,” he said.

Ashley Greenfield with the Sullivan County Public Policy Health Network told Horsky that her group has been in discussions with the Newport Health Center but it currently does not have the space.

Another concern, first expressed by board member Jason Benware, was that 1,700 needles were given out when the program operated briefly on Central Street but only 330 were collected, according to a report.

“If only 20 percent are collected, where are the rest going?” Benware asked. “It is very lopsided.”

Both Wright and Byrne said it is not designed to be a one-for-one needle exchange program. Byrne, who invited board members to the other facilities for a chance to see the operations, also said they distribute what are called “sharps containers” — small, hard, plastic boxes for safe disposal of used needles.

Though she could see the benefits, Zullo said she would be more open to the program if she were guaranteed it would only operate when children were not around.

“I personally agree with what you want to do,” Zullo said. “But I struggle with it being so close to the school.”

“Our responsibility is to keep kids safe,” Wright said in response. “If this doesn’t pass, it puts kids at greater risk.”

Though it may result in only another 5 or 10 percent of the needles off the street, Wright said he would consider that a success and something to build upon. The other points he emphasized more than once is that the population the program will be serving has trouble trusting and the key to the program’s success will be building long-term relationships.

“We are trying to provide an opportunity for part of the population that is trying to do the right thing,” Wright said.

Patrick O’Grady can be reached at pogclmt@

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