NORTH ADAMS — Drug users soon may be able to receive clean, safe needles in the city through an exchange program to be established by Tapestry, a community health care provider.
The program will be funded by the state Department of Public Health and supported by the local Board of Health. Its exact location has not been determined.
"We're doing this in response to the opioid epidemic and the high amount of the already existing injection drug use in the city," said Liz Whynott, director of Tapestry's Syringe Access Program. "This has been an issue for far too long,"
Tapestry currently operates a number of clinic locations that offer a variety of health care services, ranging from HIV testing to breastfeeding support, throughout Western Massachusetts, including a location in North Adams. The Florence-based agency has opened two needle exchanges; one in Northampton that has operated since its inception in 1995, a second in Holyoke that opened in 2012, and has plans for a third in Greenfield.
Like much of the state and northeastern United States, the Berkshires have been hit hard by the opioid addiction epidemic. Countywide, unintentional opioid overdose deaths jumped from one to 33 in the 10-year span between 2006 to 2015, according to Department of Public Health estimates.
In a 2014 report, the Department of Public Health found that "there continues to be an increase of hepatitis C cases reported among adolescents and young adults, reflecting ongoing transmission among young people injecting drugs." Between 2007 and 2014 in Berkshire County, the rate of hepatitis C increased by 37 percent, according to state data.
"The use of heroin is filled with shame and stigma and it makes people become secretive and withdraw. It's not a population that's easily accessible, and this is also the population that is dying from overdoses and acquiring HIV and Hep C," Whynott said. "All those problems don't just affect that one person, it affects the community so the opening of this program has been a long time coming and it's greatly needed in North Adams."
Needle exchanges like the one proposed by Tapestry not only limit the diseases than can be spread through sharing needles, but have also been shown to decrease overdose deaths and reduce the number of syringes discarded in neighborhood parks and streets, she said.
Tapestry also tries educate addicts — such as how to use the overdose reversal drug naloxone or the dangers of heroin laced with fentanyl — and can refer them to treatment services.
"When they're ready for treatment, it's important to catch them in that in that moment," Whynott said. "Both of our needle exchanges operate on a walk-in basis, so we're there for whatever the person needs at that time."
The location "needs to be easily accessible and it makes sense for it to be located near a bus route and in a location," Whynott said. "Having it located on the outskirts of town isn't the best."
Tapestry believes, based on its experience, that it can fit into a central location. Its Northampton location on Center Street has been unintrusive and the neighborhood has thrived, Whynott argues, and Tapestry has seem similar results in Holyoke.
In an interview with The Eagle, Mayor Richard Alcombright expressed support for a needle exchange in the city, characterizing it as "an extension of the services" already provided to those struggling with addiction in North Adams, including the addition of an outpatient medication-assisted treatment facility on Curran Memorial Highway in 2015.
"This is another piece and I think people need to understand what it is," Alcombright said,
The mayor also expressed confidence in the organization proposing the exchange.
"Tapestry has a proven track record in Northampton and Holyoke," Alcombright said.
Tapestry's North Adams location would require only the approval of the city's Planning Board, not the City Council, Alcombright said.
It's already been endorsed by the city's Board of Health.
Contact Adam Shanks at 413-496-6376.