Pittsfield needle exchange vote delayed

Mayor asks Health Board to postpone vote to allow time for public education

PITTSFIELD — A decision could be made by March on whether the city becomes the second location in the Berkshires with a syringe-exchange program.

The Board of Health discussed the ongoing issue Wednesday night among its current four members — two of whom are newly appointed.

"Time is of the essence and we will keep this on the front burner, but we want to do that collaboratively," Chairman Jay R. Green said after the meeting.

A syringe-exchange program, also known as syringe access program (SAP), and often commonly referred to as a "needle exchange," would both reduce the transmission of disease and to help people with a drug addiction opt for treatment and recovery, advocates say. The board first discussed the idea in August and had been set to vote in favor of establishing a syringe-exchange in December.

But Mayor Linda M. Tyer asked the board to hold off on making a decision until more public education was done.

"I still think that not everyone is engaged in watching meetings" and reading newspaper articles, Tyer told The Eagle on Thursday. "I want to do this so the people of our community will understand what this would mean to address a very serious public health issue."

Overdoses from opioids, which are often injected, are at an all-time high.

In 2015, 1,747 people died as a result of opioid-related overdose in Massachusetts, including 17 in Pittsfield, according to the state Department of Public Health.

Statistics show that those who use exchange programs are five times more likely to seek treatment.

Jennifer Kimball, public health planner at the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission, has been advising both a City Council subcommittee and the board on potential benefits of a syringe-exchange program. In November, the Public Health & Safety subcommittee heard a report from Kimball, and Liz Whynott, director of HIV health and prevention for Tapestry Health.

Tuesday night the council unanimously accepted the November report from that subcommittee without any discussion.

According to the report, "hundreds of studies" have confirmed SAPs reduce the spread of HIV, hepatitis C, currently considered a public health crisis in the region, and other blood-borne illnesses.

It also pointed out 85 percent of all opioid related deaths were due to heroin or illegally manufactured fentanyl. And two out of every three people who died from opioids were younger than 44.

"SAPs provide an opportunity to get help in a non-judgmental environment, before health concerns become more advanced," the report reads.

The report also points out a variety of programs and services that are available at a syringe exchange. Those services include routine screening for HIV, hepatitis C, syphilis, chlamydia and gonorrhea, overdose education, nasal naloxone distribution, health insurance enrollment, referrals to drug treatment, and other medical services, such as HIV and primary care, as well as access to clean syringes and proper disposal.

Tapestry Health is set to open a syringe-exchange program in North Adams, at 6 West Main St., a city owned property, and in Greenfield early next month. It also runs programs in Holyoke and Northampton.

Previous members of Pittsfield's five-member board had been expected to vote in favor of the program last month, but amid recent turnover on the board, Green, the chairman, wants the two new members to have time to review the history of the syringe-exchange discussion. He said the board will discuss its individual opinions next month and likely make a decision in March.

"And we may not be ready in March, but I would like to keep the conversation going," he said.

Given the rise in hepatitis C in Pittsfield, Mayor Tyer said she is inclined to support a syringe exchange "operated by experienced, professional health care providers." But she said the public needs to understand what an exchange is — and is not.

The delay troubled Whynott, who said her group has run education programs for years in the Berkshires. She said there is urgency to act, given the high number of overdose deaths.

Pittsfield Director of Public Health Gina Armstrong told the board she recently met with the mayor's office to brainstorm ways to raise community awareness of the potential syringe exchange. She is finalizing plans for a February discussion panel at Berkshire Athenaeum, which could include people from Northampton's program, based in a downtown office space since 1995.

Tyer said she expects the forum to include a report similar to the one presented to the council.

Board member Steve Smith said his unannounced visit to a syringe-exchange program that Whynott has run in Holyoke since 2012 changed his perspective.

"My visit there assuaged a lot of the initial misgivings that I may have had about the impact on the neighborhood it was in," he said. "Visiting really helped me get a much more positive impression for the entire thing."

If the board votes to support an exchange program it would tell the state Department of Public Health. The state would then request applications from vendors. When money becomes available, it would award a contract.

"An individual community has to unlock the door for the program to come in and then other resources are allocated," Green said.

Armstrong anticipates more reaction from the community soon.

"I think it's when the community is looking at a specific site, that's where people are more likely to tune in," she said.

Three members of the volunteer board resigned last year, citing too much work. Alan Kulberg, a physician, and Yvonne West, a registered nurse, were appointed to the board in December, filling two of those spots.

Tyer said she is still recruiting for the final vacancy.

There could be more turnover on the board. Green's term expires next month and Smith's expires in August.

"My hope is that Jay and Steve will stay on and continue to serve in this important capacity," Tyer said.

Reach staff writer Carrie Saldo at 496-6221 and @carriesaldo.


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