Village of Homer greenlights needle exchange program

After a lengthy discussion, the village of Homer’s Board of Trustees approved a needle exchange program Tuesday that would help combat use disorder, promote harm reduction, and prevent the spread of blood-borne infections like AIDS and hepatitis C.

The needle exchange program, proposed earlier this year, passed via a vote of 3-2 and will run as a mobile service coordinated by the Southern Tier AIDS Program (STAP) as a year-long trial. Syringe exchange services will start being provided once a month at a mobile site, will be anonymous, and will be consistently monitored by advocates, public health officials and elected officials to address any significant issues that may arise from its implementation. 

Village mayor Hal McCabe was the tie-breaking vote to approve the program. The program approved by the village board will also provide other services to participants, such as treatment referral and Narcan training.

Syringe exchange programs were legalized in the state 29 years ago, and they have been sorely missing as part of Cortland County’s substance-use disorder prevention strategies, said Southern Tier AIDS Program executive director John Barry.

“These syringe exchange programs’ importance has increased as the drug supply has become deadlier and the rate of overdoses has increased,” said Southern Tier AIDS program executive director John Barry in a statement read by McCabe. “We operate our syringe exchanges in accordance with the state’s regulations and guidelines.”

New participants in the program can only receive up to 20 needles, Barry said. Program operators keep track of intake and outtake of needles, which are then reported to the state.

Barry’s statement also mentioned statistics from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), which highlight the effectiveness of said programs. The CDC says these programs help reduce the rate of HIV and hepatitis C-related incidents by 50 percent when combined with medications that treat opioid dependence. 

New users, according to Barry, are referred to medication-assisted drug treatment. He also noted those who participate in the program are three times more likely to stop using drugs than those who do not enter syringe exchange programs.

McCabe said a proposed location for the program should be closer to the edge of the village, closer to Cortlandville and the city of Cortland due to a larger population that could take advantage of needle exchange services.

Approval for the program signifies a victory for substance-use disorder prevention and harm reduction advocates. They have attended several local government meetings in Cortlandville and Homer to promote the potential needle exchange services can have in mitigating public health issues.

Assemblymember Anna Kelles (D-Ithaca) attended the virtual meeting Tuesday, noting she was in full support of the program. 

Kelles, who has seen firsthand the impacts of a STAP-directed needle exchange program in Ithaca, noted the program has been proven to encourage individuals to seek substance use disorder treatment.

“I think that is very important. We don’t have great effective mechanisms of getting people into treatment and this provides a vehicle for that,” Kelles said. “We have seen in Tompkins County a 104 percent return rate of needles. People are bringing needles back that they are finding where they live. That is because there is trust that has been built and there is a desire and a sense of dignity that they want to keep their own environment safe.”

Matthew Whitman, director of Cortland Area Communities that Care, advocated strongly for the program, noting that something must be done to reduce the tragic loss of lives to substance abuse.

“From a public health perspective, there is no intervention that is a magic bullet or silver bullet that is going to solve every single problem we want to solve,” he said. “The needle exchange program is a tool in an arsenal of other things we have to combine together. What we have to ask ourselves is: ‘have we seen a reduction (to these problems) by not having one of these programs?’ Based on the feedback we have all gotten, the answer is no. If there is even a small reduction in the amount of needles in our community, I think that would be a positive.”

Whitman added that while he won’t venture to make predictions about the future of the program, he expects to see a reduction in the needles found in the Homer area.

“Not every syringe exchange program is created equal and that is why research is done,” Whitman said. “The average staff that this agency runs the program averages a 90 percent return of syringes.”

Dean O’Gorman, one of Cortland County’s fierce’s advocates for an overall decrease in substance-use rates and the needle exchange program, said the program will be useful to people even if they aren’t battling substance-use disorder. 

“This isn’t just about people using drugs. Diabetics can get their syringes through this program and the elderly who are not able to get rid of the syringes will have a location to dispose of these needles,” O’Gorman said. “It is benefitting the population as a whole. A lot more than just this niche we keep talking about.”

O’Gorman, who lost his son four years ago to a drug overdose, said he would also like the board to promote the program through a campaign, alerting residents to the program’s existence and promoting its safety.

“The more we do that, the more the program can succeed and do exactly what we want it to,” O’Gorman said.

Village of Homer board members Ed Finkbeiner and Kevin Slack opposed the measure. Finkbeiner said during Tuesday’s village board of trustees meeting that he did not necessarily oppose the program, but would like to see it implemented in other municipalities so Homer could study the data.

“I am not against it. I would just like to see the data (from other municipalities),” Finkbeiner said. “I just personally wouldn’t want the village to get hurt.” 

Homer is the second municipality in Cortland County to approve the syringe exchange program. The town of Cortlandville approved their STAP-operated program earlier this summer, but is still looking for a tentative location.

Here is a video stream of Tuesday's Village of Homer's Board of Trustees meeting (Video Source: Village of Homer Youtube page):