Last week, the News Journal reported the Whitley County Health Department has given out 90,481 “clean” (unused) needles since its needle exchange program began in January 2017. That’s 2.4 needles per man, woman and child living in Whitley County, or 9.9 per person over the age of 18, based on Census data.
According to the article, the health department gave out 12,696 needles more than it received. A central point repeated by public officials prior to approving the program was that it would eventually become a one-for-one ratio. What’s disturbing is that a Kentucky Cabinet for Health and Family Services document describes “operating principles” as being “Strict One-for-One,” “Needs Based Negotiation,” or a “One-for-One Plus Exchange.” Describing the latter, the state explained the ratio could be, “two-for-one or ten-for-one, at the discretion of the program.” What operating principle is Whitley County following?
For 10 years, I volunteered with UNITE to help combat drug abuse. I also worked for the sheriff’s department. I have watched drug use trends evolve and law enforcement adapt to meet each new challenge. Unfortunately, I’ve watched local and state government react with little-too-late initiatives.
In 2009, I cited a Kentucky Department of Justice and Public Safety report stating Whitley residents were prescribed more Xanax and oxycodone per resident than any of the Commonwealth’s other 119 counties. Since then, we’ve seen a sheriff go to federal prison for drug trafficking, a decline in prescription drug abuse but a surge in crystal methamphetamine use. As recently as December 2018 Whitley reported the third highest number of Hepatitis A cases among Kentucky counties—with only 17.5 percent of 630 needle exchange participants opting to receive the HepA vaccination. The surge in HepA cases occurred while the needle exchange was in place.
Regarding counseling and testing services relating to HIV and all forms of Hepatitis, the interim health department manager was quoted as saying, “Very few take us up on that.” “Very few,” she said, despite the incentive of a $5 Walmart gift card for participating. Accommodating persons who lack access to the Williamsburg facility makes sense. Whitley County is large (437 square miles), and 26.5% of the population lives at or below the poverty level. Serving the many pockets of population across the county isn’t easy.
Several years ago, I was seated at a conference table discussing the costs of building and operating a youth recreation center in Williamsburg or near Exit 15. I stared at my salad from a local restaurant, but I had lost my appetite. I asked how we could ensure children had access to the facility. My mind trailed off thinking about children struggling to survive with less than exemplary parents or grandparents trying to fill the void of incarcerated or deceased parents. Many children in our community lack access to existing opportunities.
A few years ago, I chaired a meeting where a correctional officer discussed how Laurel County recruited citizens who have extra time on their hands to help persons in the court system make it to church, counseling and court. Lack of transportation, or access, is an issue.
Addressing the latter issue can save local tax dollars and rescue people from a revolving door that traps so many defendants. Improving youth access to existing opportunities can save young lives and enrich our community for years to come. But today, attention is focused on providing easier access to clean needles, including the idea of parking a “mobile harm reduction unit” in downtown Corbin.
With the exception of meeting a one-to-one ratio, the health department is doing what it was tasked to do—provide people an opportunity to obtain clean needles. The exchange was approved by Corbin, Williamsburg and Whitley County elected officials. To them, I would ask, “What are our communities doing to address the underlying conditions that create a need for 90,481 taxpayer-funded needles?”