Tippecanoe County’s syringe exchange program was extended for two more years Wednesday.
In a two to one vote, Tippecanoe County commissioners approved the continuation of the Gateway to Hope program, which facilitates access to clean needles and treatment programs and works to lower the number of county hepatitis C cases and HIV rates.
Tippecanoe County Health Officer Dr. Jeremy Adler said the Indiana State Department of Health’s calculations for the county’s syringe return rate for returning participants was 91.4% between the program’s starting point in August 2017 and the end of September 2020, above the state’s benchmark of 80%. 97,116 total syringes were distributed during that time period.
Health department officials also addressed the ongoing impact of COVID-19 on the program’s ability to function as usual. The department is dealing with fewer hepatitis C cases than when the program began in 2017, when 176 cases were reported. So far this year, 32 cases have been reported, with 49 cases open for investigation as of Nov. 10. Adler said the pandemic has reduced the testing capacity of the health department, though the lower numbers could also be an indication the program has been effective in previous years at identifying and testing people with hepatitis C.
Health department administrator Khala Hochstedler, addressing the 49 open cases, said typical contact tracing resources have been centered around tracking coronavirus.
“Right now, everyone’s response has been COVID-19 investigations,” Hochstedler said.
Hochstedler also said the pandemic has affected rapid entries into treatment programs.
“A lot of times, for a recovery house, they want you to be isolated and quarantine for so many days before you can get into that recovery house, or get into that treatment center,” Hochstedler said. “Well, when someone decides they want to go to treatment, we need to get them into treatment today. And with the pandemic, we’re just not able to do that.”
Hochstedler said 84 people were referred for treatment or mental health services between Sept. 2019 and Aug. 2020, adding that she was able to identify 12 people in active recovery this year.
“And your gut opinion -- those 12 wouldn’t be there if they hadn’t come through this program?” asked county commissioner David Byers.
“I think more than 12 would not be there,” Hochstedler said. “If the pandemic wasn’t going on right now, I would have pulled people that had been through our program and been successful today to be here.”
Hochstedler also underlined the importance of Narcan distribution, which treats opioid overdoses.
“We’ve given out 5,000 doses of Narcan since the SSP [syringe service program] started that we would not have access to without the syringe service program,” Hochstedler said. “We’ve given out 1,000 doses to law enforcement. So not only do we have those people in active recovery, but also we’ve saved countless lives by having the Narcan available.”
“And if you don’t have Narcan and you can’t breathe today,” Hochstedler added, “there’s no point in recovery.”
County commissioners Tracy Brown and David Byers voted in favor of renewal. Commissioner Tom Murtaugh was the lone no vote, saying he commended the local work being done on behalf of substance abuse and understood the seriousness of the issue, but that it was “no secret” he had issues with the program.
“If, you know, at some point, there can be true documentation that those folks -- that there are folks that are actually getting help, that are dedicated -- directly through this program, I could potentially change my mind,” Murtaugh said. “At this point, we supposedly have 12 people that are in recovery, which is phenomenal, but we don’t really know how those folks got linked up with those services.”