More than 97 percent of those interviewed by the Frederick County Health Department believe there is a need in the community for a syringe service program, a public health strategy that seeks to reduce some of the negative health consequences of drug injection by providing clean needles.
The statistic was provided by Jessica Ellis, syringe service program coordinator for the Health Department, in a presentation Monday night at St. Katharine Drexel Catholic Church in Frederick.
In April, the department was awarded nearly $23,000 in state grants to study the feasibility of launching a syringe service program in Frederick County. Since late October, staff members have held at least 15 to 20 interviews with community members, potential partner agencies and active drug users to determine the need for such a program and potential barriers to entry.
“One question that was included at the end of every interview or focus group was about the need in the community for such a program,” Ellis said. “And we found that 97.5 percent of stakeholders believed there was.”
The presentation also addressed general information about addiction in Frederick County, including commonly used terminology and community resources. But for many who attended, the proposed program became the focus of questions or feedback. A few in the audience worried that providing clean needles could enable residents already struggling with substance abuse.
Others, including virologist Maria Nazzarena, argued that the program didn’t go far enough. Nazzarena, a Frederick resident, specifically asked about the possibility of including a safe injection site along with a needle exchange.
The sites, already prevalent in Canada, Australia and Europe, provide drug users with clean injection equipment and a safe place to use drugs under the supervision of clinically trained staff members. Like syringe service programs, safe injection sites are shown to reduce drug overdoses, risky injection behaviors, and the spread of diseases such as HIV and hepatitis C.
Ellis said that the department is not considering launching a site in Frederick County. And while Nazzarena also supported a syringe service program, she argued that adding a safe injection site would be even more effective.
“I know right now it is not feasible, but that would be nice to see,” she said. “We already know there are more than 40,000 overdose deaths a year in the United States. And to me, the possibility that large numbers of people could get infected with diseases — that’s even worse.”
The feasibility study is still preliminary, according to Ellis, but health officials in the county are considering the possibility of a fixed site for syringe services along with a mobile unit that could provide services to rural parts of the county and residents without reliable transportation.
A successful syringe service program would also offer education, testing for communicable diseases, and referrals to mental health and substance abuse treatment, she added.
The presentation even convinced some residents who said they were previously opposed to starting a program in Frederick County.
“Before tonight, I was definitely against it, but just from the way they presented it, I feel different,” said Mike Bowersox, a Frederick resident and parishioner at the church.
“They said there was a reduction in costs for the county, they got the needles back, and there was a reduction in crime,” Bowersox continued. “After hearing that, it just made sense.”
The program could also be beneficial in a community where addiction and overdoses play a marked role. There is an average of one overdose a day and one fatal overdose a week in Frederick County, Ellis said.