OSWEGO – The expected may make the news, but it’s the unexpected that gets the headline. And so, when on Tuesday, Feb. 4 the county health committee gave unanimous approval to ACR Health of Syracuse to initiate a free needle and syringe exchange program in the county but then a week later somehow left it off the agenda for consideration by the full legislature, the headline’s assured.
ACR Health is an upstate NY non-profit corporation operating in nine counties. In Syracuse alone, they have three offices and around 100 employees, according to Roberto Gonzalez, director of ACR’s Syringe Exchange Program. They provide needles and syringes to anyone who needs them. Only registration is required. No name or photo is on the registration card, but you have to have one to participate in the exchange. It is a non-judgmental organization, and there is no quid pro quo. In other words, there are no strings attached. You need needles, you get needles. There is no pressure. But if the day comes that you want help dealing with your addiction, ACR is there, and they will guide you to that help, and they will help you get clean. They call their approach “harm reduction.”
“Our approach is non-invasive,” Gonzalez said after meeting with the county health committee. “It’s definitely based on research. It is based on studies and evaluation surveys that have been done throughout the years to show that the opposite (quid pro quo) approach is not the most effective approach. The research shows that the harm reduction approach is most effective at keeping people alive and being that initial access point for them when they’re ready to make the change on their own in their lives. By providing low-threshold services, we are able to do that. If we were to say, ‘Well, in order for us to provide you services, you have to do this, we wouldn’t be as effective as we are in keeping people alive.”
Providing clean needles and syringes is a way to keep people alive who might otherwise easily fall victim to diseases transmitted by sharing needles with others, diseases such as hepatitis. According to a mid-December advisory from the state Department of Health, “the number of hepatitis A virus cases reported in the state, excluding New York City, from January through November 2019 increased 235 percent compared to the average number of cases reported annually in 2016-2018. Increases have been seen in all regions of the state. However, Dutchess, Erie, Jefferson, Niagara, Onondaga, Oswego, and Suffolk counties have been particularly impacted. Risk factors reported by NY state cases during this outbreak include non-injection and injection drug use, unstable housing/homelessness, current or recent incarceration, and men having sex with men.”
So, there it is. Non-injection and injection drug users. The most likely population at risk of contracting hepatitis A, a disease that is highly infectious to the rest of the non-drug-using community. And here comes ACR Health to Oswego County, one of the seven most-impacted counties in the state, offering clean needles and syringes to whomever needs them. And here to greet them is the Oswego County Health Committee of the Oswego County Legislature.
They were raked over the coals on the issue of mandatory reporting of underage users to law enforcement and/or other agencies. They were told their explanation was poor. The county’s permission was made conditional upon ACR receiving the cities’ permission. ACR Health did have some supporters on the committee. But it also had some very vocal detractors. And yet, in the end, the divided committee gave its unanimous endorsement. A week later the unanimous approval that ACR’s request move forward to the full legislature somehow didn’t make it onto the February meeting’s agenda.
Oswego County Sheriff Don Hilton was at that committee meeting and afterwards was asked if he supported ACR’s request to start giving out free needles and syringes via mobile van units.
“I don’t see a downside to it,” he said, “and I think we should try it. I’m open to anything that’s new, and I think we should go ahead and give it a shot.”
Oswego Mayor William Barlow was asked what he thought of the idea later in the week.
“Generally, I’d be interested in it,” he said. “It would all depend on location, the details of the program, and if it’s been proven to work in other areas, I imagine we’re not the first to give it a try. I’d have to research and connect with other municipalities, other counties that have done it, get their feedback, and take it from there. I’d meet with them (ACR). But location will be the biggest thing. I’m not going to put it in the heart of downtown. But, if there’s an appropriate location, I’d consider it.”
James Karasek, legislator from the 22nd District, chairs the county health committee. Following the full legislature’s meeting Thursday, Feb. 13, he explained the absence of a resolution on ACR Health’s request to come into the county this way:
“The state told us we did not have to have a resolution go through the legislative body,” he said. “It’s them presenting the program, us having an understanding what it is, having the discussion. The committee is leaving the resolution in place because part of that resolution was the discussion with the city of Fulton, the city of Oswego. My understanding is as of today, they have not talked to either party. That concerns us because if they’re going to come in and do the program, it’s going to mostly center around the two cities, and they (the cities) need to be involved in the discussion of what that program is, where those vans are going to be at, and how the program is going to be run. We did not want to be in the position that the county is dictating something to the cities without them being involved in the decision. So, the legislative body did not need to approve it, but we are leaving our process in place with the committee in order to give the cities that opportunity to have the same discussion that we did.”
The issue, he said, “won’t come back to the legislature because it’s not legally necessary.”
As far as the cities go, “it’s not necessary that they have to pass any kind of resolution. It’s considered a courtesy by the state, and they encourage that the discussion needs to take place. They need to be talking to the people who are actually the host, and even though they may decide if they want to go to Central Square or Pulaski or something like that, that would be the county involved in that decision, which they’re approved to be in the county by us, even though they can come in anyway, we’re welcoming that. The cities are our concern because that’s where most of that traffic will be taking place. We just want to be courteous to the cities and offer them (ACR) the chance to be professional as to telling them (the cities) what the program is.
“And they said in committee that they would be doing that.”