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With Approval in Newport, Two Needle Exchange Programs Can Open in NKY

The Newport city commission voted unanimously on Monday night to allow a needle exchange program to operate.

The move comes nearly two years after the City of Covington and Kenton County adopted a similar ordinance - on the condition that Boone County or Campbell County, and a city therein, follow suit. 

While Boone County has taken no action on the issue, Campbell County followed Covington and Kenton County two months later.

But no city stepped up.

Now, after nearly two years have passed, Newport stepped up.

The city was not wasting time, city leaders said Monday, but instead was evaluating its options, studying the issue, and attending meetings. Such meetings included a panel discussion at the Newport Business Association.

But still, no action was taken, despite calls from local health officials at the Northern Kentucky Health Department and St. Elizabeth Healthcare that inaction would likely result in a spike in HIV and hepatitis C cases.

That prediction was confirmed in January when health officials from the state and local area announced that there were 18 confirmed HIV cases in Kenton and Campbell Counties, a number that has since increased, citing intravenous drug use - namely, heroin - as a likely source.

Newport city manager Tom Fromme said that a year ago, he would have expected that nearly 80 percent of the city's residents would have opposed a needle exchange program. But, according to the results of an unscientific survey distributed to residents electronically in the two weeks since a city commission caucus meeting where the program was discussed, Fromme said that 80 percent now favor a program in some form or another.

Some of that support was for locating the program at the Campbell County Fiscal Court building, a block south from the city building, where the Northern Kentucky Health Department maintains an office.

Ultimately, it was decided to allow a mobile unit to operate at the Urgent Care location in Newport, adjacent to St. Elizabeth's Fort Thomas campus. Covington's ordinance also allows for a mobile unit to operate three hours a week at the St. Elizabeth location in that city.

"It is quite obvious we have come around as a community and everyone realizes how important this is, not only for the city, but the entire region as well, and it's an issue we have to address," Fromme said. "We are going to encourage others to help us in the future as we move forward in addressing these needs in an ongoing basis."

"Newport has always been a leader and forward-thinking, and I think this is another step in the right direction," said city commission Frank Peluso.

City commission Thomas Guidugli said that he prefers to refer to the program as a "harm reduction and syringe access program".

"I think it's important that we are providing a path for other cities to join us in the future to fight this epidemic," Guidugli added.

City commissioner Ken Rechtin criticized the Campbell County Fiscal Court for what he characterized as a narrow focus when it approved the program in May 2016, suggesting that it could only operate in Newport based on that vote. He also said that the health care community should bear the burden of a program along with the public health department.

"I believe this is a response that should be shared with the medical community. The appropriate site is the site we've chosen at St. E.," Rechtin said. "This isn't a fall-back position, a not-in-my-backyard position. This is taking a position that I am going to say publicly that I think the fiscal court failed on."

"Every year, this board deals with many difficult issues and makes many hard decisions," Mayor Jerry Peluso said. "This one has been a challenge."

Written by Michael Monks, editor & publisher