Soon-to-open Watertown syringe exchange site creates discussions downtown



WATERTOWN — A new program to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS and other diseases by offering free needles and needle disposal will soon open downtown — and has become a local controversy for some business owners and community members.

After more than a year of planning and working with the state, ACR Health is putting the finishing touches on a fixed-site syringe exchange in the Franklin Building in downtown Watertown. The organization hopes to open the site by early October, but has not set an official date.

ACR Health has offered free needles at its main Watertown office downtown for years, but has lacked the capacity to safely dispose of a large number of used needles, whether used recreationally, for hormone treatments or to treat diseases like diabetes.

According to ACR Health, the syringe exchange program hopes to save lives by not just reducing and preventing the spread of HIV/AIDS, STD’s and hepatitis, but offering ground floor access to addiction treatment services and drug overdose prevention.

In 2016, 23 people in Jefferson County died of drug overdoses. At least 16 of those deaths were caused by opiates.

As of June 29, there had already been 12 confirmed deaths by overdose this year and seven pending toxicology, making 2017 on track to easily surpass last year’s mortality rate.

The program’s Franklin Building storefront will be accessible by only its Franklin Street entrance, not the main business atrium.

Discussion of the program and its location recently kicked up locally and online, even becoming a feature of the most recent City Council political forum on Wednesday.

City Council candidates Stephen A. Jennings, a current council member and public health planner, and Ryan Henry-Wilkinson stated their support for the program.

Candidate Clifford G. Olney criticized the downtown location, contending it will hurt businesses. He instead suggested establishing “injection sites” where addicts would know that heroin would not be laced with the dangerously powerful fentanyl.

A number of business owners in the building did not respond to requests for comments.

“We’re neighbors, our office is right down the street and we own many of the residences in the neighborhood,” CEO and executive director of Neighbors of Watertown Gary Beasley said.

“The misuse of drugs is a major concern of ours and any program working to alleviate that problem is something we’re in support of. Having said that, there are probably appropriate and less appropriate locations... There are perhaps other places I would have preferred (for the syringe exchange program.)”

Mr. Henry-Wilkinson supports the program because downtown “is the epicenter” of the heroin and opioid epidemic.

Earlier this year, Mr. Jennings and the Public Health Service targeted and mapped every confirmed overdose death in Jefferson County between 2010 and 2016.

One of the report’s most striking findings is the high proportion of deaths centered in the city of Watertown, the town of Watertown and LeRay. In 2010, five of the eight county-wide deaths occurred in Watertown, and between the years of 2010 and 2016 the area saw 60 deaths out of 110.

Mr. Jennings further broke down Watertown overdose numbers by city block groups. The downtown area, centered around Public Square, saw the highest concentration with 15 deaths between 2010 and 2016.

“One of the things we’re looking more closely at are other indications drug use often go hand-in-hand with,” Mr. Jennings, who is also the chair of the Association for Better Communities, said in March. “Like socioeconomic status. Drugs don’t discriminate, but poverty presents additional challenges with addiction.”

“It’s a legal business, ACR Health is a responsible nonprofit and we have confidence that they’ll run it safely and to the best of their abilities,” Mr. Beasley said.

ACR Health also intends to run a free local needle pick-up and disposal service, allowing residents to call and report used needles in public or dangerous places.

The agency already operates a syringe exchange program in Syracuse with a mobile outreach van, and another site in Utica. Services offered by its exchange programs include the following:

■ Provide new sterile syringes and other safer injection supplies, and safe disposal of used syringes.

n Help injection drug users adopt behaviors which reduce their risk of contracting HIV or viral hepatitis.

■ Educate clients about the importance of avoiding syringe sharing, safer injection techniques, and safer sex practices.

■ Offer risk reduction counseling and referrals to HIV, STD and hepatitis counseling and testing, health care, substance use programs, and social services.

■ Provide male and female condoms, dental dams, and other safer sex supplies with instruction and demonstrations on their proper use.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, syringe exchange programs reduce drug use.

People who inject drugs are five times likelier to enter treatment for substance use disorder and more likely to reduce or stop injecting when they use a syringe exchange program.

The CDC also states that while syringe exchange programs do not increase local crime in or near their locations, they do prevent “needlestick” injuries among first responders — approximately one in three of whom may be stuck with a needle during their career.

The programs have been found to reduce deaths by drug overdose and even save health care dollars by reducing infectious disease transmission. The estimated lifetime cost of treating one person living with HIV is more than $400,000.

Jen JacksonComment