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Our view: Give approval to Grand Forks syringe clinic

Syringes are displayed at an informational meeting about a proposed syringe service program recently in the Grand Forks County Building. Photo by Tess Williams/Grand Forks Herald

From 2017 to 2018, local Hepatitis C cases increased 78% in Grand Forks County. According to the Grand Forks Public Health Department, most are tied to intravenous drug use. The disease spreads easily through contaminated blood; a common path is via shared syringes.

Sunday, the Herald outlined a Health Department proposal to provide clean needles to drug users in the community. If the proposal moves forward, the hope is to combat the spread of the disease and encourage treatment.

We hope it happens. If so, Grand Forks would be the fourth in the state to institute such a program. Hesitant at first, a few key points have convinced us it’s a good idea.

Foremost, drug use in the region has spiked. Michael Dulitz, the opioid response project coordinator with the health department, said Grand Forks has great need, shown by overdose trends and convictions. Law enforcement can only do so much before treatment methods must be pushed to the forefront.

For the most part, it would be an exchange program, and that’s important. While participants would not necessarily be required to bring used syringes with them, they would be strongly encouraged to do so. The more used syringes off the streets the better.

Some syringe programs only will distribute new syringes in exchange for an equal number of used ones; others distribute syringes even if there is no exchange. The Grand Forks program would be somewhere in between those philosophies.

As Dulitz explained: A client would go to an exam room. There, staff would spend time discussing the client’s patterns and learn about risky behaviors. Clients would be expected to bring back as many syringes as they took during the last visit, but not necessarily be required to do so; those who fail to bring syringes back likely would face limits – fewer syringes available, for instance – in future visits.

The key, Dulitz said, is to provide clients with “positive social connections” that could lead to treatment.

We prefer a full exchange program to reduce the number of used syringes in the community, but we appreciate the methodology of the hybrid approach.

Notably, no money from the city is needed. The program would be funded via federal grants and private donations. Initial estimates show it will cost $64,000 the first year.

Most important is that a syringe center could spark hope of treatment and recovery.

In the Herald’s report Sunday, opioid response intern Ashlee Nelson said users who come to similar clinics elsewhere are five times more likely to enter a treatment program than those who do not participate. She also said these centers are proven to reduce the spread of diseases.

The City Council is expected to vote on the proposal next month. If approved, the facility could begin operation as soon as October.

Allowing users – lawbreakers – to anonymously exchange needles may be unpalatable to some. But considering it has no cost to Grand Forks taxpayers and considering its potential good, we hope the council gives its approval to the project.