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Needle-exchange program launches in Claremont



Valley News Correspondent
Tuesday, May 07, 2019

CLAREMONT —  A long-anticipated needle exchange program for intravenous drug users launched last Thursday, nine months after the School Board voted to allow Valley Regional Hospital to host the service.

No one used the service the first day, but that was not a surprise to officials running the program.

“We anticipated a slow start,” said Ashley Greenfield, community health improvement program coordinator at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center who joined Laura Byrne, executive director of the HIV/HCV Resource Center in Lebanon to update members of the City Council and School Board at their quarterly joint meeting on Monday.

The program will operate 3:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. on Thursdays only and will be available at the hospital’s occupational health department. Until 5 p.m., anyone wishing to access the service can do so through the main entrance and after 5, at the adjacent emergency department.

Byrne said a slow start was also seen at an existing syringe exchange program in Springfield, Vt., which has been in operation for about two years. She said they initially saw only about seven or eight individuals but now it is up to 100 annually.

The officials told the School Board and City Council that there was not a lot of information to share, only that they had opened but could not say how many people they expect to see every week.

It has been a long road to find a permanent location for a needle exchange.

In the summer of 2017, two Dartmouth College medical students started a program at the Claremont Soup Kitchen on Central Street. But it only operated for about 10 hours over three months before being shut down because it was within 1,000 feet of a school, which at the time was a violation of state law.

Valley Regional Hospital was seen as a viable alternative but it also is within 1,000 feet of a school, in this case, Disnard Elementary on Hanover Street. The Legislature approved an amendment to the law, allowing a needle exchange to operate at a health care facility and within 1,000 feet of a school if the School Board gives its approval.

The board voted 5-2 last September to let the hospital host the program and an advisory board has been working on the logistics, including not operating during school hours, which end at 3 p.m. The program will be staffed by volunteers, not hospital employees. 

Former hospital CEO Peter Wright and Claremont Police Chief Mark Chase both spoke in support of the service at the School Board meeting last September when the vote was taken.

“My belief is that it is all about harm reduction,” Chase told the School Board. “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.”

Byrne said last September that they do more than needle exchanges. While the main goal is to keep dirty needles off the street, she said people who misuse drugs are given the opportunity to access services that they otherwise might not avail themselves of. These include counseling as well as hepatitis and HIV testing.

“We see our program as a way to get people in for services,”   Byrne said last year.

Besides Springfield and Claremont, a syringe exchange program operates in White River Junction.

Byrne also told the School Board the program also distributes “sharps containers” small, hard plastic boxes for safe disposal of used needles.

Patrick O’Grady can be reached at pogclmt@gmail.com