SCOTT COUNTY — The Syringe Service Program in Scott County is closing after county commissioners voted to put an end to the program and top health officials are sounding the alarm.
"It's not going to affect just Scott County. It will affect the whole state," Kelly Hans, prevention outreach coordinator for the Scott County Health Department said.
Hans knows first-hand that it's not only about giving needles to people using drugs.
"A lot of it is testing," Hans said. "We like to focus a lot on the testing."
Testing for things like HIV, HEP-C and STDs.
Hans fears testing will drop off, meaning people who need treatment won't get it, causing HIV and Hepatitis C to increase in the county.
This is personal for Hans, who is trying to help people.
"Myself and the other girl who run the syringe program are both certified peer recovery coaches," Hans said. "So we've been where they're at and we've found a way out."
State Health Commissioner Dr. Kristina Box, former U.S. Surgeon General and state health commissioner Dr. Jerome Adams and other health officials urged the county commissioners to keep the syringe exchange program.
"They said they want us to end January 1, 2022," Hans said. "We are looking for different solutions, something else we can implement."
But all research shows syringe exchange programs are a very effective way of preventing HIV outbreaks.
Now, folks like Hans have just under six months to try and find an alternative way to help their community.
"As a community, we're gonna have to pull together once again to figure out what that is, what we can put in place for the syringe exchange," Hans said.
'We first have to make sure people are alive': State official, advocate voice concerns
Douglas Huntsinger, the executive director for drug prevention, treatment and enforcement for the state, said his initial concerns are for the clients who are in the programs.
“I think that’s one thing that people sometimes have a difficult understanding with these programs is it’s not just providing someone with a syringe," Huntsinger said. "You know last year 8,000 people were referred to treatment through our syringe service programs."
Huntsinger said his message to others considering ending similar programs is to think about the clients.
"People have experienced trauma that we may not understand or may even never know," he said. "And so we have to understand that we are helping the most under-served individuals in our community, this may be the only touch-point that some of these individuals have with someone who is trying to help them into treatment, or trying to ensure they’re living a healthier better life.”
He said the Scott County Syringe Service Program will be remembered as a program that works, saves lives and reduces disease. The goal of harm reduction programs, like the one in Scott County and being able to access naloxone, make sure people are safe and not spreading disease.
"So our harm reduction programs, our syringe service programs, you know meeting people where they are at, providing them with naloxone, ensuring that they are safe and not spreading disease, that is really important," Huntsinger said. "In order to move people into treatment, we first have to make sure people are alive."
The state will continue supporting the Scott County community move forward, he said.
“Those supporters in Scott County, we stand with you. We’re here to help," he said. The department of health has been very engaged in this process throughout and they continue to speak to the county health officer to ensure whatever that path forward might be, that the state is there to provide the assistance."
The program in Scott County is a national model, said Brandon George, Vice President of programs, recovery and advocacy for Mental Health America of Indiana.
"It's devastating to see Health Commissioner Box, former Surgeon General Jerome Adams, and other experts tell county commissioners that this program is needed, only to have them dismiss that input and close it anyways," George said. "We know what happens when SSPs close, West Virginia just saw an immediate increase in HIV cases. We must listen to our public health officials and follow science on healthcare issues.”