A 92-year-old woman strolled along the Astoria Riverwalk on Thursday, carrying a bag of groceries from Safeway. Along the way, she passed Public Health Director Michael McNickle, Public Health Nurse Sheri Salber and Kerry Strickland — founder of Jordan’s Hope for Recovery.
They were conducting a needle exchange for drug users at the end of 32nd Street behind the grocery store.
She approached them and asked why they were there. When she heard, she told the story of her own son’s death from a drug overdose. Following the conversation, she continued walking. But she then turned around, returned and handed them a $10 donation.
After an initial stumble, Clatsop County’s race to exchange as many clean needles for used ones as possible is gaining momentum.
Thursday’s event was the third in a weekly, six-month pilot program to deter the spread of disease from dirty needles. Advocates have pointed to the number of needles collected — taking them out of public areas — as the main indicator of success for the program. But law enforcement officials — including Sheriff Tom Bergin and District Attorney Josh Marquis — have been skeptical as to its effectiveness and worry about a potential snowball effect of drug policies that enable abuse.
The first event earlier this month yielded no used needles. The second brought in about 100. On Thursday, about 3,000 were collected.
“It’s staggering to me,” said Debbie Morrow, a member of the Columbia Pacific Coordinated Care Organization Board of Directors, who has advocated for the program. “We think we’re a small, rural community and don’t have these abuse issues, but we do. We have an epidemic on our hands, and Clatsop County is not immune from that.”
The county will bring additional needles to its next event due to the surprising uptick of interest. “We weren’t expecting such a jump from one to another,” McNickle said. “We weren’t quite sure what we were up against.”
Officials noted after the first exchange that it would take time to establish trust with drug users. So far, six so-called “messengers” have been collecting all the needles in buckets and taking them to the exchange sites on behalf of drug users.
Since the first event, the county switched locations along the Astoria riverfront and has now settled on the 32nd Street spot. All of the exchanges so far have taken place in Astoria.
Events at Knappa Fire District Station have not resulted in any returns. The health department will also explore potential exchange locations in Seaside. Information about the weekly exchange events — held Thursdays — can be found on the county health department’s Facebook page.
County commissioners unanimously approved the program, funded by a $50,000 donation from the Friends of Columbia Community Health, in August. If deemed successful, the county may look into adopting a permanent program.
“The problem with addiction is so profound and troubling,” County Commissioner Kathleen Sullivan said. “Anything we can do to fix it would be great. What they’re trying to do — building trust — is not an easy thing, and I applaud them for doing it.”