Health department officials are hoping that a new mobile harm reduction unit will result in more drug addicts taking advantage of free needle exchange programs, which hopefully will keep them from contracting and spreading various diseases and keep more used hypodermic needles off of streets, roads, sidewalks and parks.
Whitley County Health Department Interim Public Health Director Tamara Phelps told the Whitley County Board of Health during its quarterly meeting Monday that Whitley, Knox, Laurel, Clay and Jackson counties received a $75,000 grant to purchase the mobile unit, which will utilized in each county one day per week.
The new unit should be available to start hitting the streets either in March or April, and Phelps said that she would probably try to park it along Depot Street in Corbin so residents in the northern part of the county can utilize it.
“It is a mobile van that will drive around and give out needles instead of being in a building. We are still going to do the needle exchange at the health department on Fridays,” Phelps said. “We are going to hire peer counselors to staff that van because we don’t have the staff to do it right now.”
Since Whitley County’s needle exchange program started in January 2017, 630 people have participated making a total of 3,264 visits to the health department.
During that time frame, 77,785 used hypodermic needles have been turned into the health department and been disposed of properly. The health department has also given out 90,481 clean needles.
“It is going well,” Phelps noted.
A total of 110 participants have received Hepatitis A vaccinations during the needle exchange clinic.
“Of course when they come in for their needles, they are counseled on Hep A, B and C. We offer Hep C and HIV testing. Very few take us up on that, but we are offering. They can actually get a little incentive, a $5 Walmart card to get tested but they don’t have time. We try. We keep going,” Phelps told the board.
“We had counseling here for about a month by Baptist Health. We had about four people go through counseling. It didn’t go so well so now I am going to have a peer counselor come in during our needle exchange. He has worked with Knox County since they started their needle exchange program. He seems to have good success trying to get people to go to treatment.”
The needle exchange program is held every Friday from 2 – 4 p.m. at the Whitley County Health Department’s main office, which is located off Penny Lane in Williamsburg.
In addition, Phelps informed the board during Monday’s meeting that the health department had scored a perfect 100 on its recent coding compliance review audit for the public health clinic.
In other business, the board:
- Agreed to change the health department’s hours of operation from 8 a.m. – 4:30 p.m., which included a one-hour lunch break for employees, to 8 a.m. – 4 p.m. starting May 1 with a 30-minute lunch break for employees. Health department employees have a 37.5-hour workweek. Phelps said that a majority of the health department employees are in favor of the change, and most only take a 30-minute lunch break.
- Met in executive session for nearly 40 minutes to discuss personnel matters, but took no final action. After the executive session, Williams confirmed that members met in executive session to discuss the public health director opening. In November, Martha Steele was terminated as the public health director. Board minutes from the special meeting indicated that the board wanted to move “in a different direction.” Phelps was named the interim director during that meeting. The board held a special meeting last month to interview three applicants for the position. Williams said the board doesn’t have a time frame for naming a permanent replacement. “We don’t feel like we are under any time constraints mostly because we have good leadership right now. We are going to do the best we can,” he added.
- Re-elected Williams as chairman of the board and Don Creech as vice-chairman.
The board’s next regularly scheduled meeting will be June 17 at the health department’s Corbin office, which is located off Cumberland Falls Highway.