A pilot needle exchange program has received official support from Clatsop County.
The Board of Commissioners unanimously approved a resolution Wednesday supporting the six-month program, which will be funded by a $50,000 donation from Friends of Columbia Community Health. While the county Public Health Department has been developing the program for months, the resolution gives it political backing before the first exchange session takes place later this month.
Commissioners initiated the idea of drafting a resolution during a July work session. At the session, Public Health Director Michael McNickle introduced them to the program and described potential benefits such as cost reduction, curbing the spread of disease and limiting the number of needles in parks. McNickle also said the exchanges could be a fulcrum for nurses at the sites to develop trustful relationships with those who use drugs, which could then lead to future conversations about seeking treatment.
“This was a controversy 20 years ago. The statistics and the data are there that proves it over and over and over again,” Scott Lee, the board’s chairman, said. “To me, this is super simple.”
McNickle had been hoping to implement the program since he took over as public health director last September.
“Public health needs to step up and do our part,” he said. “We’ve really been on the sidelines looking at this from afar.”
Prior to the work session, McNickle approached law enforcement officials to inform them about the upcoming program. Police chiefs, Sheriff Tom Bergin and District Attorney Josh Marquis expressed their concerns but agreed to let the program function, and some even recommended possible exchange locations.
The first exchange session is scheduled for Aug. 25, though locations have not been finalized. More information about times and locations will be shared through social media and word of mouth among those known to use syringes to inject drugs, McNickle said.
At the sessions over the next few months, those participating in the one-for-one exchange will also receive sharps containers, and nurses will be available to answer questions. Nurses have been directed to shut down exchange sites if illegal drugs or drug paraphernalia are spotted.
Once the pilot program concludes, the county will evaluate whether to have a permanent program based on the number of needles collected. McNickle said that, in a recent poll at the Clatsop County Jail, each inmate who identified as an intravenous drug user said they would participate in the program.
Multnomah County, with a population of nearly 800,000 people, holds weekly sessions and exchanges tens of thousands of needles each time, McNickle said. Though he is hoping for proportionally similar results, McNickle does not want to mirror Multnomah’s practice of also handing out items such as cotton and tie-offs.
The Public Health Department, along with representatives from Columbia Pacific Coordinated Care Organization and local nonprofit Jordan’s Hope for Recovery, have been working to secure grants with other counties for a permanent version.
At the work session in July, Debbie Morrow — a member of the Columbia Pacific CCO Board of Directors — said political support such as the resolution Wednesday would be helpful in those efforts.
“This body endorsing, supporting, advocating on our behalf, it’s huge,” Morrow said.