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Newport to Vote on Needle Exchange Program

A needle exchange program seemed to gain support of the Newport city commission at a caucus meeting on Monday night.

But where such a program could end up was not clear.

Mayor Jerry Peluso started the meeting, which attracted a large crowd to the Newport city building, by suggesting that the city had not been idle on the issue over the nearly three years since it was permitted by the state to adopt a needle exchange or syringe access program. He noted that he and city leaders had attended many meetings over the years.

But early last month, the Northern Kentucky Health Department announced an HIV cluster in Northern Kentucky, centered in Kenton and Campbell Counties, that caused health officials alarm and deepened calls for a syringe access program. The region's crippling heroin crisis was blamed on the increase in HIV and hepatitis C cases as many of the new cases cited shared dirty needles as a possible exposure.

The Northern Kentucky Health District has one operating syringe access program, in Williamstown. The state law enabling the program requires approval from the district board of health, the county, and the city in which the program will operate. Kenton County and the City of Covington approved a program in 2016 on the stipulation that either Campbell or Boone and a city therein also pass such an ordinance.

Campbell County has given its blessing but no city within it has signed on. Newport may finally come around.

"Tonight's meeting is a continuation of a process of information that the board has been getting for two and a half to three years," the mayor said. 

City commissioner Ken Rechtin blamed the General Assembly for creating "friction" between counties and their cities by mandating that both sign on to a program. He said it would make more sense for stores that handle pharmaceutical drugs, like Walgreens and CVS, to operate syringe access programs but he said lawmakers won't revisit the issue.

City commissioner Thomas Guidugli stated that he had been opposed to such a program but has come around to support it. "I'll tell everyone in this room, initially I started off as someone who didn't think this was a good idea, generally," he said, "but I've witnessed how it works in other places and it works when it's closer to the people."

Guidugli called the heroin crisis a regional and economic issue, as did Northern Kentucky Chamber of Commerce president Brent Cooper who spoke in favor of the exchange, citing the region's needs for an improved and healthier workforce.

Though the caucus meeting Monday was limited to sixty minutes by city ordinance, about twenty of those minutes were dedicated to public comment.

"I urge you to make a difficult decision. That's what governing is," said Dr. Mark Schroer, who has an office in the city. "The future is at stake and we are wasting time and need to act now."

Sarah White of the Campbell County Drug Free Alliance said that her organization supports the program because will protect families and the community from the associated diseases.

Resident Rose Curtin expressed a similar sentiment.

"We are dealing with a crisis that trickles down into our neighborhoods and into our families, into our communities in so many ways and we need a response that i sjust as big as the crisis," Curtin said. 

Curtin added her concern about placing the program at St. Elizabeth Hospital in Newport since it is more difficult to access than the other suggested location, the Campbell County Fiscal Court building on Monmouth Street where the Northern Kentucky Health Department operates an office.

Resident Steve Mathisen, though, asked for the program to be at St. Elizabeth rather than the county building. 

The city commission will vote on the issue at its next meeting on February 26, but what they will vote on is not yet clear. They have the option of voting down the program, or voting in favor of it with location and other stipulations.

If Newport approves it, the program in Covington would be allowed to operate, too.

Written by Michael Monks, editor & publisher

Photo: Crowd listens at Monday night's Newport city commission caucus meeting (RCN)