By the slimmest of margins, Tippecanoe County’s needle exchange program will survive for at least one more year.
A 2-1 vote by the county commissioners Monday came down only after Commissioner David Byers – who’d declined for weeks to state his stance publicly – voted in favor of a continuance.
Byers says he was swayed by talking to other commissioners at a recent state conference and by listening closely to public comment at Monday’s meeting from those who are unhappy about the exchange operating in a residential neighborhood in Lafayette.
“People that said they were against it aren’t against the program," Byers says. "They’re just against the location. And I think that helped big time, there, too.”
Byers says he thinks the program is "going in the right direction," but all the commissioners say better numbers a year from now will tell a more complete story of its effectiveness.
The lone no vote on the issue – Commissioner Tom Murtaugh – asked County Health Officer Jeremy Adler to define terms for deciding, a year from now, whether the program is working.
“Well, I would hope that what we’d see during 2018 would be a decrease in the numbers of new hepatitis C cases,” Adler says.
The county has already seen more new cases of hepatitis C this year than it did in all of 2016. The county plans to also operate a mobile exchange on weekends in addition to the stationary location, as a means of reaching a still-rising number of patients.
Supporters of the program who spoke at the meeting outnumbered detractors more than two-to-one. County public health nurse Khala Hochstedler read from letters sent in by exchange participants who asked that the program continue.
“I’m a 31-year-old unfortunate addict that has been using intravenously for the last four years. I’m an addict who is not proud or happy about my addiction and trying to quit,” one letter read.
As Byers noted, most of the complaints came from people unhappy with the location of the exchange, rather than its efforts. But one mom from the neighborhood, Brianne Hubner, told the crowd she thinks taking a “not in my backyard” stance is valid.
“The proximity of this needle exchange program and the people it brings – and don’t tell me this is a good thing. I understand the health crisis," she says. "But I also sit in that parking lot Fridays from 1-3:30 – during school hours – and see the people coming out of there.”
A total of 111 people have used the needle exchange since it opened in August. Adler says neighborhood cleanup events in the vicinity of the health department where the needles are handed out have turned up only two syringes among some 25 bags of trash collected.