RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — In the midst of the opioid crisis, the Virginia General Assembly approved the launch of needle exchange programs around the state. 8News has uncovered, however, these programs have been slow to roll out.
Lawmakers gave the OK to launch 55 needle exchange programs around the Commonwealth. Two years later, 8News has found there are only three in the state: One is located in Wise County, another in Smyth County and one in Richmond.
“Needle exchange is not new, it’s just new to Virginia,” says Elaine Martin, Director of HIV Prevention for the Virginia Department of Health. “They are a little bit complex to get up and running; there are a lot of moving parts. They require buy-in and input from the local community.”
Needle exchange programs allow drug users to swap out dirty needles for clean needles. The programs aim to curb the spread of deadly infections.
Since the start of the opioid crisis, Virginia has seen a significant rise in Hepatitis C. By the end of November 2018, there were 8,873 cases of Hepatitis C reported in Virginia.
“We haven’t seen an increase in HIV and that’s one thing we want to prevent,” Martin said.
Neighbors have shown big support the program in Richmond.
“I do trust the people at the Health Brigade,” city resident Scott Forsyth told 8News back in October.
The Executive Director of Health Brigade told 8News in a recent interview the needle exchange program in Richmond is much more than a place to swap needles, but also a place for counseling, testing and resources.
“There’s a whole list of ways that we’re wrapping our arms around a person to say, ‘hey we’re here to try to help you,’” says Karen Legato, Health Brigade’s Executive Director.
Still, some communities — and particularly police departments — in Virginia have been apprehensive. Some view needle exchanges as an endorsement of drug use.
“Somebody doesn’t decide they are going to inject heroin because we hand them a needle,” Martin insists.
Martin referred to 30 years of data showing needle exchange programs reduce incidents, HIV and Hepatitis. She also says the programs can directly protect first responders.
“It takes dirty needles off the street,” Martin said.
The legislation allowing for needle exchanges expires June of 2020. Yet, Martin is hopeful it will be extended.
The Virginia Department of Health will provide a report on the programs in place to the Governor.
Martin says even the small sample of programs in play suggest big signs of success.
“We have gotten folks into drug treatment, we have had several overdoses reversed through the use of Naloxone or Narcan and we have had folks get into hepatitis treatment,” she says.
8News has learned there are at least three other applications for needle exchange programs in the works. We’re told there’s interest from the Tidewater area, Lynchburg and Winchester.