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Facing backlash, Tippecanoe County Health Department defends moving syringe exchange program

 Tippecanoe County Health Officer Dr. Greg Loomis discusses moving the location of the county’s syringe exchange program. (WBAA News/Ben Thorp)
Tippecanoe County Health Officer Dr. Greg Loomis discusses moving the location of the county’s syringe exchange program. (WBAA News/Ben Thorp)

The Tippecanoe County Health Department received pushback earlier this month after announcing that it planned to move the location of its syringe exchange program from within Lafayette Transitional Housing Center to the Lafayette Recovery Cafe.

Critics of the decision say the new space sits too close to several schools.

WBAA’s Ben Thorp sat down with Tippecanoe County Health Officer Dr. Greg Loomis to talk about why the program needs a new location.

Ben Thorp: I want to get you to start today by talking about some concerns that have been raised about the syringe exchange program. When it was first announced – we’ve seen some concerns, particularly from parents, who say “Hey, wait a minute, this is close to several schools and we are concerned about the population it’s going to bring close to those schools”. What is your perspective as the leader of the health department?

Dr. Greg Loomis: I think my major concern is that most people who have these types of concerns aren’t fully educated on what a syringe safety program is and what it does. Certainly, as health officer, my responsibility is to everyone in the county, even the homeowners around the school and the children who are at the schools. But I believe that that’s not going to be an issue – it hasn’t been an issue for the last five years in the existence of the syringe safety program. We’ve not had one single incident, no matter where we’ve been - whether that was down in the Centennial District, or where it presently is located, which is Lafayette Transitional Housing. Not one single problem.

So going back to what I said a couple of weeks ago at the commissioners’ meeting, I truthfully never thought that this was going to cause the problem that it did. And I apologized to the neighbors over there, saying I should have sat down sooner with them and discussed it, but I just never thought that would be the problem. So I don’t think there’s going to be.

I think Superintendent Huddle [of the Lafayette School Corporation] has been very clear they’re concerned about the location, but they are going to keep an eye on it to make sure. I’ve spoken to a couple of the people at both of those schools – from what I heard last week, they’re not concerned at this point. They’re going to keep a close eye on it and make sure that nothing happens. I had lunch with the principal of the Lafayette Christian School – an incredibly nice gentleman. He certainly has concerns, as does everybody, but he understands the position of the program as well.

Thorp: Talk to me about why the health department was looking at a new location to begin with?

Loomis: When I first took over there were two priorities that I had. One was the fetal infant mortality rate, and getting that under control – or at least getting a program in place for that – and we did that, and we’re still doing it. And my second was to get the syringe safety program out of Lafayette Transitional Housing, mainly because we needed more space. There was absolutely no room in there, nor has there ever really been adequate room. So we needed space to allow the clients that come in a certain amount of dignity and privacy. That was my main reason for wanting to move it.

Thorp: What do you want people to understand about this syringe safety program?

Loomis: People look at the syringe safety program as – and I hate to use this term – but as the drug addicts you see in the Hollywood movies. This is absolutely not true. Many, many, many of our clients are people who have jobs and work. I ran into one of our clients in Payless grocery store a few weeks ago – certainly didn’t break any anonymities or anything like that. But these are people who have been prescribed narcotics by physicians and then were shut down, and they were stopped. That’s about 20 to 30 percent of people who use narcotics presently. So they had no place to go but the streets. So these are people in pain, who have pain symptoms. People that come to the syringe safety program come to the syringe safety program because they want to at least use clean syringes so that they can avoid disease. That is a huge step. By making that determination to come, that is a positive step for recovery. The statistics show that if you’re in a syringe safety program, you have a five times greater chance of getting into recovery. That’s what we’re looking for.

Thorp: Talk to me about moving forward. What do we know about when this is going to be moved to a new location, and what kind of confirmations do we need to move forward?

Loomis: I think right now we’re ready to go. I’m working with the neighbors and a couple of their representatives and they’ve been absolutely wonderful. I just couldn’t be happier working with a better group of people. We’ve made all sorts of recommendations. The most recent one I made to them was setting up a community task force to monitor the SSP (Syringe Service Programs) program. I told them I’d get them on the agenda every two weeks at the commissioner's meeting to give a report if they like. Whatever we can do to let the neighborhood know that we are on their side as well.