Things got prickly over needles between Vernon council and Interior Health Monday.
The authority had been invited to council to discuss recommendations involving IHA made by the city’s Activate Safety Task Force, but the majority of the 64-minute presentation focused on needles, distribution and buyback programs.
Needle distribution programs said IHA medical health officer Dr. Karin Goodison, joined at council by three colleagues, are just one example of services offered from a harm reduction approach.
Easy access to safe disposal options, she said, is an essential component to ensure needles are properly disposed of, and that IHA has worked closely to install large industrial sharps bins in hot-spot areas for easy access to safe disposal options.
The city matched two bins provided by IHA.
Coun. Scott Anderson told Goodison and council that he had gotten off the phone earlier Monday with a woman in tears after her granddaughter “was the latest of many people” to step on a needle, though he didn’t say where the incident happened.
“It bothers me sincerely when I get these phone calls, their lives are now upside down,” said Anderson, who has called for the city to invest in a needle buyback program. “They’re dealing with an emotional issue, you’re giving out needles. You know how many you order, but don’t know how many you give out.”
Anderson also took exception to IHA claim they have a 99 per cent recovery rate, which Goodison admitted was inaccurate.
“North American programs typically are at 90 per cent and above. I apologize as we should have stated our numbers of inappropriately disposed of needles is less than one per cent reported,” said Goodison, who also said her focus as a medical health officer is doing what’s best for communities.
“If we did not have needle distribution programs or even if we moved back to needle exchange programs, we will see an increase in HIV in our communities and Hepatitis C in our communities. I personally would rather be poked by a needle than get HIV from a partner that I didn’t realize was using drugs. So I think we need to be looking at the very large picture where we are looking at what is best for the health of the community.”
Discussion between Anderson and Goodison went on for several minutes before Goodison asked the councillor if he thought things were getting better with programs like the sharps containers and weekly community needle pick-ups.
“I’ve not heard it’s getting better at all,” said Anderson who, along with Coun. Brian Quiring were council’s representatives to the Activate Safety Task Force. “Nobody is in a position to count the needles on the street.”
Quiring told Goodison he is a downtown business owner and, in his opinion, finding needles on his property is going down and he said he is cleaning up fewer needles.
“But I’m still cleaning up needles and every time I pick up a needle, it pisses me off,” said Quiring. “Who gave this person this needle? Fundamentally, I believe IHA has a responsibility to this community to manage the needle distribution and recovery, and I don’t think that’s being managed.
“I’m totally in favour of harm reduction, and part of harm reduction and treatment should include managing the needles. You’re not doing anybody any favours by handing out — and we’ve heard staggering statistics of how many needles people can get in a day — all of these needles. I don’t believe IHA is taking responsibility or ownership of those needles in the way they should.”
Quiring did agree with IHA’s harm reduction attempts but where it falls apart for him, he said, is with the authority, not the people using the needles.
“You give them the needles, you have a responsibility to ensure that thing that is potentially hazardous doesn’t end up in a park for someone to step on or, in the very least, there should be an attempt to do that,” he said. “You need to figure out a way to track and manage the situation. I don’t know how you do it but someone has to figure it out.”
Goodison said IHA is apprehensive to take on such a program and would like to see the authority and city continue to collaborate.
“Public health is everyone’s business,” she said. “Debris in the community, whether it’s discarded needles, used condoms or broken bottles is everyone’s concern, everyone’s problem. I’d like us to all to work together to make it cleaner. Let’s keep it moving forward.
Added Quiring: “I totally agree. We’re moving in the right direction. We may come out swinging a lot, but you’re making a big difference. The work you do is very appreciated.”
Anderson, however, was adamant the city should try a buyback program.
“We have some reservations about trying it,” said Goodison. “This is being tried somewhere else, why not see how it goes there before we try it here. If you consider it here, be very careful how you fund it and careful how you evaluate it for any unattended consequences.”
Coun. Catherine Lord appreciated the desire IHA has shown to work with businesses and the city.
“That’s huge,” said Lord. “We’ve all learned a lot. Before IHA handed out needles, people were reusing the same needles all the time. At least they’re giving them clean needles. I think we forget that.”
Coun. Juliette Cunningham said there’s an opportunity for better dialogue.
“We don’t ever want to minimize the anxiety or fear from the community, but when someone steps on a used needle, they’re going to react with a lot of fear and anxiety,” she said. “I’m feeling very optimistic following these presentations.”
Goodison said IHA is dedicated to offering clients a full spectrum of care, which includes treatment and recovery; that the city’s community action team (HART) serves “as an excellent platform for ensuring the city, businesses, and community members are able to be engaged and involved in discussion surrounding harm reductions measures and the overdose response;” and is committed to continued collaborative discussions about how IHA, council and other community partners can best support the benefits of harm reduction measures.