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Covington Amends Mandatory Testing in Needle Exchange Ordinance to Match Kenton Co.

The City of Covington formally altered its original approval of a needle exchange on Tuesday night. The move comes after the Kenton County Fiscal Court gave its OK to the program but removed a condition that the city commission included, which was to require testing of program users for diseases like HIV and Hepatitis B & C.

Kenton County leaders agreed that that requirement was likely against the law related to medical privacy rights.

Covington leaders first approved the exchange two weeks ago and Kenton County followed suit a week later.

The Kentucky General Assembly passed legislation in 2015 that allowed for the creation of so-called syringe access or needle exchange programs, so long as a municipality and a county jointly agreed to allow it. The law adopted in Covington and Kenton County, however, goes a step further. The program, which would be operated by the Northern Kentucky Health Department in conjunction with St. Elizabeth Healthcare at the hospital's Covington campus in a mobile format, would also need to be adopted by at least one other county and municipality served by the health department.

The Northern Kentucky Health Department serves Grant, Kenton, Campbell, and Boone Counties. Grant County and the City of Williamstown have already approved a program and have one in operation. The ordinance adopted in Kenton and Covington require three of the four counties to participate. With Kenton and Covington on board, the next move will be in Boone or Campbell, an action that Mayor Sherry Carran said that she believes is close in both.

"Instead of saying it will be required, we are saying (testing) will be offered," said City Manager Larry Klein in recommending approval of the altered ordinance. The city commission voted 4-1 to make the change, a different outcome than the unanimous approval last month. "There was some concern about whether there was an invasion of privacy."

"I'm not at all happy with watering it down," said Commissioner Steve Frank, the lone dissenting vote.

Dr. Lynne Saddler, director of the Health Department, said, "There are no programs in the country that require testing because it violates numerous laws and the Constitution." Developing a relationship with users is key to the success of a needle program and requiring frequent users to be tested each time could discourage their participation, Saddler argued. "They will be offered testing at every visit and offered counseling and education."

Frank said he would "love to see it challenged in court".

"If we impose an initial test, maybe those who do not know they have (a disease) might get some treatment," Frank said. "We're taking away from ever being able to monitor if the program is effective."

"It is inefficient to be testing them every week," Commissioner Jordan Huizenga countered. "Maybe they choose to be tested after developing a relationship every other month."

The exchange would operate for three hours a week at the St. Elizabeth campus on James Simpson Way when a third county and municipality sign on.

Michael Monks, editor & publisher

Photo: Covington skyline (RCN file)