Sunday, July 2, 2023

Kentucky has 84 syringe-service programs in 65 counties; the pandemic slowed their growth, but two have opened this year

State Department for Public Health map, adapted by Kentucky Health News; click on it to enlarge.
By Melissa Patrick
Kentucky Health News

Kentucky has added two new syringe-service programs for intravenous drug users this year, bringing the total to 84 SSPs, in 65 of the state's 120 counties. Hart County opened its program in January and Estill County reopened its program in April.

SSPs are part of what health departments call “harm reduction programs,” which offer a host of strategies to minimize the negative physical and social impacts of drug use. They are also called syringe-exchange programs or needle exchanges, for the best-known element of the prorgams.

Estill County's program reopened after being shut down in 2020 because the Irvine City Council took away its approval, required by state law in a city where a program is based. The Estill County Health Department's program is now in a mobile clinic that goes to multiple locations in the east-central Kentucky county. 

Hart County is in south-central Kentucky, which is served by the Barren River District Health Department. Charity Crowe, a UK Healthcare health-education coordinator embedded in the department's harm-reduction program, told Kentucky Health News that adding more SSPs to decrease overdose deaths is one goal of the Barren River Initiative to Get Healthy Together (BRIGHT) Coalition.

Only three of the eight counties in the district have SSPs. Warren County opened its program in 2016, Barren County in 2018, and Hart County in January. 

Crowe said one of the first steps they took as they worked to get local approvals in Hart County was a survey of local jail inmates, asking f they would use an SSP if it was available. She said 63 inmates, or 64% of the survey respondents, said they would use it.  

"That kind of helped us with getting everything passed through the Board of Health, Fiscal Court and City Council," Crowe said. She praised the efforts of County Judge Executive Joe Choate: "He was a huge supporter of the program and us getting it started, so that helped get everything moving along a lot quicker."

Asked if she had any advice for people in the 55 Kentucky counties that still don't have an SSP, but want one, she said it's important to keep educating people about what they are and why they are important. 

"Just to try to educate people on why we do what we do," Crowe said. "There's so much stigma surrounding the things that we do with harm reduction. . . . We are trying to make our communities a safer place, not just for people that use drugs, but for our kids, our first responders, everybody." 

She also encouraged them to not give up. "Pretty much anywhere that you go, you will get a little bit of pushback," she said. "But in order for us to break that stigma, we just have to keep educating people."

Looking to other counties in the district, Crowe said they have held an educational meeting in Edmonson County and are working to have one in Logan County. She said Logan County's health board of health and Russellville City Council have approved an exchange, but the Fiscal Court has not.

Kentucky Health News graph from state data; click on it to enlarge.
The steady growth of SSPs in Kentucky took a heavy hit from the pandemic, with only eight counties opening a new SSP since 2020. The legislature authorized the programs in 2015.

Syringe-service programs not only exchange clean needles for dirty ones, to decrease the spread of blood-borne diseases like hepatitis C and HIV, but provide education on the safe use and distribution of wound-care kits and Naloxone, which blocks a drug overdose. Other services are infectious-disease screening, vaccinations, and linking people to housing, food access, insurance, medical care, substance-use treatment and behavioral-health services.

Crowe said the SSPs in Hart and Warren counties also use a peer-support specialist who has "been a phenomenal resource for our clients." 

On June 29, a new law kicked in that decriminalized fentanyl test strips in Kentucky, meaning they will no longer be considered drug paraphernalia in the state. Because of this, Kentucky's SSPs can offer them to their clients . Fentanyl was involved in 72.5% of the state's 2,135 overdose deaths in 2022. 

Fentanyl test strips are paper strips that can detect the presence of the powerful opioid in pills and other drugs within minutes. They are considered a low-cost method of helping prevent drug overdoses and reducing harm, according to the Centers for Drug Control and Prevention.

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