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Health Department Asks to Extend Hours of Syringe Program

The Northern Kentucky Health Department, with an endorsement from St. Elizabeth Healthcare, asked the Kenton County Fiscal Court to allow it to extend the hours in which its mobile syringe access program operates.

"(A change in ordinance would) allow us to operate for more hours so we are better able to handle the needs of this population and make sure that we are doing an adequate job at trying to help these folks not only not spread disease, but get connected to care and services they need," said Dr. Lynne Saddler, district director of health at the NKY Health Department.

Saddler and St. Elizabeth Covington and Ft. Thomas Chief Operating Officer John Mitchell made the request at the Kenton County Fiscal Court meeting on Tuesday.

Kenton County and the City of Covington each adopted an ordinance in 2016 to allow a mobile syringe program to operate on the St. Elizabeth campus in the city for three hours a week, on the condition that three of the four counties served by the NKY Health District approved similar measures. State law requires approval from the district health board, and the county and a city therein in order for syringe access or needle exchange programs to operate.

Grant County and Williamstown were first to approve such a program, and put no conditions on its neighboring counties.

It took nearly a year and a half before the City of Newport, in February 2018, joined Campbell County, which had approved the program nine months earlier, in allowing the program to operate on St. Elizabeth's campus that straddles the Newport-Ft. Thomas line. 

Neither Boone County nor any city within it have approved the program.

The mobile unit began operating in Covington and Newport in July of last year, after a spike in HIV and hepatitis A and C cases hit the region, most due to intravenous drug use.

There were 44 new cases of HIV in Kenton County last year, more than half believed to be related to shared syringe use.

Since opening, Covington's location is the busiest in the district, Saddler told the fiscal court on Tuesday. "The three hours we are allowed to operate there, there are times we have to turn people away," she said. "It's a very busy program."

"The syringe exchange program is a vital part of our community's response," said Mitchell, of St. Elizabeth. "Participants in this program typically have complex medical issues best dealt with in a Northern Kentucky Health Department center clinic, but until such a time that can happen, we would like at a minimum, for the health department to address the high demand for services by having the ability to operate the exchanges for more hours during the week.

"St. Elizabeth would support the health department being able to operate for additional hours."

There are other concerns about the way the way Northern Kentucky offers syringe exchange access, Saddler said, noting a visit by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The Covington location should be more discrete, have extended access hours, and its restrictive access policy leads to continued use of shared needles and the spread of disease, Saddler said of the CDC's notes.

Kenton County Commissioner Joe Nienaber had a question for Saddler about the local battle against opioid use and addiction: "Are we winning?"

"I think we're making progress," Saddler said. "Northern Kentucky was ahead f the curve compared to many other communities. It took some time to figure out what was going on, what do we need to be doing, how do we tackle this issue, and who needs to be doing what?"

It will take more time, she said.

"It didn't happen overnight, it's not going away over night," Saddler said.

"The needle exchange, personally, was a tough call to vote for," Nienaber said. "In the back of my head, I was hoping that this would be a temporary program."

"I would love to have it be a temporary thing," Saddler said, "but for the foreseeable future, until we can get things under control, to deal with mental health, housing, and transportation, and all sorts of other things... it doesn't change overnight."

Judge/Executive Kris Knochelmann said that the fiscal court will "look at things," and possibly act "if we feel that's necessary."

Written by Michael Monks, editor & publisher