A month after opening, North Adam’s syringe access program has seen a slow increase in use, according to Program Manager Sarah DeJesus.
The program, which is led by Tapestry, formerly Tapestry Health, has been measuredly successfully, according to DeJesus.
And it has recently seen an uptick in overall interest and need.
“Since Feb. 1, it has been slow-going in the office, only a handful of people have come in, however part of our work is community outreach so we visit places where our target population would be and provide services onsite,” DeJesus said. She continued: “Community interest has definitely grown in the program. We are slowly seeing more people, either to access services or just to inquire about the program.”
Syringe access programs have opened as another way to combat the opioid epidemic the Northeast is currently embroiled in. The program opened in North Adams following the health board’s approval late last year. At the time, it was the only one in Berkshire County.
Recently, though, Pittsfield approved a syringe access program.Reluctance to use the service, Dejesus said, contributes to the program’s slow start. But Wendy Penner, the director of health and wellness at the Northern Berkshire Community Coalition, said low turn out is to be expected at first.
“This is not a population that will jump out of the woodwork and self identify,” she said. “The first couple of weeks no one walks in the door.”
Penner, though, said it is just a matter of time before the service sees a spike in use.
“It’s a slow build up,” she said. “Once people do start to utilize it, then the word spreads.”
Liz Whynott, Tapestry’s director of HIV health and prevention services, knows this all too well.
Whynott was involved with the implementation of needle exchanges in Holyoke, Northampton and Greenfield. Whynott said that while exchanges farther east faced sluggish starts, too, they soon picked up – Whynott described Holyoke’s exchange as “really, really successful.”
“We’re still in the phase of getting off the ground in North Adams. It is going to take a little while to get a steady flow of clients,” Whynott said. “The most effective way of getting people to come in is through word of mouth.”
DeJesus, though, is confident in the proliferation of her program.
“We provide services in a non-judgmental way and strive to meet participants where they’re at, literally and figuratively,” DeJesus said. “The benefit for North Adams, or any community, is that harm reduction services fill a huge gap in the continuum of care.”
The list of gaps the program fills is lengthy.
The program, overall, offers access to new syringes; a place to dispose of used syringes; overdose prevention education, alongside Narcan distribution; drug use counseling; HIV, Hepatitis C and STI testing; injection education; as well as providing safe sex supplies and medical care referrals.
“People do have the ability to make healthy choices,” Whynott said. “We work with the person.”
In total, the program provides harm reduction in the largest sense.
“Because we are a harm reduction program, the ultimate goal is to reduce the spread of bloodborne infections such as HIV and Hepatitis C by reducing the number of used syringes and other injection supplies in circulation,” DeJesus said. She continued: “We also provide additional supplies such as sterile water, alcohol wipes and hand sanitizer to reduce the spread of infections.”
“It’s really about keeping people alive,” Penner added.
Stopping the spread of harmful, bloodborne diseases, like Hepatitis C and HIV, is a major point of action for the needle exchange facilities.
Penner described Hepatitis C as a “time bomb.” And, according to Penner, it poses a larger threat than HIV.
“It’s a pretty horrible disease for a lot of horrible reasons,” she said. “Unless you’re tested, you don’t know if you have it until you manifest symptoms.”
Symptoms of Hepatitis C include yellowing of the skin or eyes, nausea and poor appetite. In the end, Hepatitis C can cause scarring of the liver, liver cancer and liver failure. According to Penner, it is more contagious and “much more prevalent” than HIV in some drug use communities. Using an unused needle – and not sharing needles – greatly reduces the spread of Hepatitis C.
At the downtown location, those that come in are treated anonymously and can both receive and dispose of syringes. According to DeJesus, there is no limit on how many syringes people can drop off.
For exchanges, though, the program operates on a “one-to-one plus one policy.”
“If someone brings in 10 used syringes, we can give them 11 clean ones,” DeJesus said. “More often than not we take in more syringes than we give out.”
Most services at the syringe access program are free and confidential – blood work for STI testing requires insurance billing and the documentation of infectious diseases, though.
The syringe access program can be found at 6 West Main St, North Adams. It is open Monday through Friday, from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Questions regarding the program or any of its services can be directed to DeJesus at (413) 387-8676.