A state coalition will open a needle exchange program in Raleigh next week and is looking for a site to start a similar one in Durham County.
Advocates have pushed for such programs to be legalized in North Carolina as a way to reduce the risks of spreading HIV and hepatitis and to help drug users get treatment. Last month, Gov. Pat McCrory signed a law laying out guidelines for such programs.
Before then, churches, former drug users and public health advocates in North Carolina ran “underground syringe exchange programs” for years, said Robert Childs, director of the N.C. Harm Reduction Coalition.
“People were risking incarceration to decrease the risk of infections and provide life-saving resources,” Childs said.
In Wake County, the coalition is partnering with Sigma Health Services to open an exchange program in the parking lot of 2321 Crabtree Blvd., off Capital Boulevard, from 3 to 8 p.m. Tuesdays. The site will open Sept. 6.
“It’s a lot more than just distributing needles,” said coordinator Hyun Namkoong. The coalition will also distribute overdose rescue kits and provide referral and other services.
Similar programs have popped up in recent weeks across the state. The coalition partnered with the Orange County Health Department in launching its program last month and has programs in Greensboro and Wilmington.
Since July 17, the Wilmington program has distributed more than 8,000 clean needles and collected more than 6,000 used needles, Childs said. The program has a fixed site, mobile unit and home delivery.
Now, the coalition is looking for a location and partnering agency to operate a program one day a week in Durham, in addition to having a mobile unit.
“This will be the first legal site in Durham,” said outreach worker Loftin Wilson. In addition to syringes, the program will offer safe-sex education, drug treatment referrals and HIV testing.
The coalition currently provides clean needles to “a handful of people” in Durham who call or text Wilson at 919-370-0671. “You can have as many as you need as often as you need,” Wilson said.
The state law prohibits public money being used to purchase clean needles. Wilson said that part of law “doesn’t make sense,” and hopes the community will “step up” to help the Durham program get the supplies and funds it needs.
Durham County ranked fifth in the state per 100,000 residents for newly reported cases of HIV between 2013-15, according to the 2015 North Carolina HIV/STD Surveillance Report. In those three years, 195 new cases were diagnosed in the county.
Wake County ranked 18th per 100,000 residents, with 452 new cases, while Orange County ranked 39th, with 38 new cases diagnosed over the three years, according to the report.
Unlike in Orange County, where officials have set up drop boxes in two health clinics but emphasized one doesn’t have to bring in old needles to get new ones, Namkoong said the coalition is strongly urging people to bring in used needles to the Raleigh site.
“It is an exchange,” she said Tuesday. But the coalition won’t deny anyone new syringes “because that would increase the risk of sharing needles or reusing them,” she said.
Wake County Human Services Public Health Division does not currently have a partnership with the coalition’s needle exchange program nor does it run its own program, a spokeswoman said Tuesday. With the new law, county staff members have been analyzing the feasibility of partnering to develop a syringe exchange program in the future.
Advocates say safe-syringe programs curb HIV and hepatitis infection rates and help keep law enforcement officers from being stuck by contaminated needles.
One in three officers will be stuck accidentally with a needle during their careers, potentially exposing them to HIV and hepatitis B and C, according to a Harm Reduction Coalition report. About one in four will be stuck more than once, the report said.
“When there are exchange programs, it’s less likely that needles have been used multiple times,” said Wil Glenn, a spokesman for the Durham Police Department. “The programs decrease the HIV and hepatitis B injuries for officers and users.”