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Kenton Co. Gives OK to Needle Exchange, Heroin Hotline

The Kenton County Fiscal Court has given its blessing to a needle exchange/syringe access program that would be operated by the Northern Kentucky Health Department at the St. Elizabeth Hospital campus in Covington.

The City of Covington approved the program last week.

Under state law, adopted in 2015, such programs are permitted to operate only with the dual approval from the county and city in which it will take place. The ordinance adopted by Covington and Kenton County mandates that three of the four counties served by the Northern Kentucky Health Department approve such a program before it commences. Grant County and the City of Williamstown already have a program in place. Boone County or Campbell County along with a city in either would need to approve the program next.

Kenton Co. Judge/Executive Kris Knochelmann said at Tuesday night's meeting that the program would be similar to one offered in Cincinnati, operating as a mobile unit for just three hours a week. He also noted the need on this side of the Ohio River, citing figures that suggest out of 750 participants in the Cincinnati program, more than half are from Northern Kentucky.

"Our hope would be that anyone who lives here and needed to get clean needles will have access," he said.

Use of heroin and the associated criminal activity have gripped Northern Kentucky where overdose deaths continue to rise. Now local leaders are taking steps to prevent what could be another side effect of this scourge: quick spread of diseases like Hepatitis B & C, and HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. The decision to add a needle exchange/syringe access program was motivated by that threat.

County Commissioner Joe Nienaber said that he would otherwise vote against the program, except that after conversations with his brother-in-law, who he said is an infectious disease doctor, he understood the looming threat. Nienaber questioned the component of the ordinance that indicates only residents within the four counties served by the Northern Kentucky Health Department would have access to the program when there were not strong mechanisms in place to enforce that. Users won't be asked for their names or addresses. "We have no way of proving where they are coming from. I can't make sense of that in my mind," Nienaber said. "Needless to say, I think we have a true community health risk and it breaks my heart that I have to vote yes, but I vote yes."

Commissioner Beth Sewell wanted assurance that the program was not being funded by tax funds from the county. Dr. Lynne Saddler, director of the Northern Kentucky Health Department, said that a $250,000 private grant would fund the program for several years, with most of that money going towards staffing the mobile unit. 

Commissioner Jon Draud was also a reluctant supporter. "I'm not in favor of the concept but we have such a serious problem with the heroin issue that I think it demands some dramatic things to happen and all these things that have been happening are making little impact," he said.

On Tuesday night, those other things that have been happening, were highlighted as successes in a multi-pronged battle against heroin in the region, and there are hoped-for reinforcements on the way. Chris Conners, director of the Northern Kentucky Drug Strike Force, reported that the agency is seeking approval from the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) to combine its efforts with the High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (HIDTA) enforcement team in Cincinnati which he said would create more seamless crime-fighting opportunities. The goal is to hit the big dealers to lessen opportunities for new heroin users to score.

"Heroin seizures are down a little bit but overdoses are not," Conners said. "So what I'm getting at is, there is a market in Northern Kentucky for heroin and where there is a market, there is going to be criminal organizations to come to that because it will be economically suitable for that. If there is somebody here wanting it, they will be here selling it. We're trying to get to the family members and friends so that they know what to look for and can maybe have discussions about it.

"I've been in law enforcement 32-plus years, 27 in drug enforcement and I've never seen more awareness in my career. In the crack epidemic, I would go to social events and no one ever talked about it. You can't not talk about (heroin) now. People who have nothing to do with it will talk about it. What we're trying to do in an intelligence policing model is attack the higher end of the food chain. In the Strike Force, we're trying to attack criminal organizations, identify them, disrupt them, and dismantle them. It reduces availability sometimes by increasing price, so the whole point is to impact new users."

Jason Merrick from the Kenton County Detention Center talked about the program that he oversees and how it has positively impacted the heroin addicts incarcerated there. "It's working. We're seeing some really good success rates," he said. 

Sewell recently visited the program. "I left there feeling joy and hope," she said. 

The county also approved a $25,000 contribution to a new heroin help hotline that would be operated in Northern Kentucky. The new hotline would cost approximately $150,000, Knochelmann said, and St. Elizabeth has offered to pay half of that, meaning that Kenton, Campbell, and Boone Counties would contribute the other $75,000.
 
The new syringe access/needle exchange program will not go into effect until another county and accompanying city sign on. Kenton County made one slight change to the regulations approved by the City of Covington. Whereas the city approved a requirement that all users be tested for diseases, the county altered the requirement to mandatory offers for testing.
 
Knochelmann said that the city's requirement could kill a program because it may deter users from participating since they would have to be tested every time. There was also a question raised about whether it was legal to include such a requirement. It was not wholly clear on Tuesday night whether the change by the county would force the city to vote again. Kenton County Attorney Stacy Tapke did not believe that the city would have to vote again, but Covington City Commissioner Steve Frank, who attended the fiscal court meeting along with Mayor Sherry Carran and Commissioner Chuck Eilerman, said that he would vote against the new version of the law since disease-testing is no longer a requirement.
 
Written by Michael Monks, editor & publisher
Photo: Dr. Lynne Saddler speaks to the Kenton County Fiscal Court (RCN)