By MADDY O’CALLAGHAN
Capital News Service
LANSING — The Department of Health and Human Services says it wants to expand its syringe service program to reduce the number of opioid overdoses in Michigan.
The programs provide drug abusers access to sterile needles, HIV testing, the overdose drug Narcan and overdose training, plus other types of assistance.
The program began in 2018 at four locations, and has expanded to over 20 local health departments. Current locations include Sault Ste. Marie, Petoskey, Harrison, Traverse City, Marquette, Grand Rapids, Lansing, Ionia, Baldwin, Mancelona and Houghton.
To reach Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s proposed goal of cutting overdose numbers in half within the next 10 years, it’s essential to expand the program, according to Andrea Taverna, the department’s senior advisor for opioids strategy .
Taverna said combating the opioid crisis needs prevention and treatment initiatives, but also harm-reduction programs for those struggling with substance use but who aren’t ready for medically assisted treatment.
Harm-reduction initiatives try to reduce physical and mental harm caused by drug use.
Joseph Coyle, an adviser for the syringe service program, said that the research and science behind providing sterile needles is strong.
According to Coyle, individuals who use syringe programs are five times more likely to enter treatment than those who aren’t in a program.
“The goal is to keep people alive long enough so that they can one day achieve recovery,” Coyle said.
Data also suggests that areas with syringe programs have fewer discarded dirty needles left in public areas.
Both Taverna and Coyle said they’re pleased with the positive reaction from local health departments that have used the program. They say misconceptions can be cleared up if communities understand the research behind syringe distribution.
Coyle said it’s important for local residents to discuss the issue.
“If communities aren’t ready for these programs to operate, it won’t be successful,” Coyle said. “Communication is critical. We need to be asking who is ready and who is able to do these programs.”
Taverna also said such programs build relations between local health inspectors and individuals with substance abuse disorders.
“This is engaging with a highly stigmatized population in a way that builds trust,” Taverna said.
Emily Pratt, a health educator at the Marquette County Health Department, said she’s seen a positive effect from the county’s syringe service program, which has expanded to three sites since opening in 2018.
She said the program focuses on the often-expanding needs of individuals.
“Whatever the goal is of the participant becomes our goal,” Pratt said. “It might become access to other services, or to dental care, or to primary care, or employment or even housing. That becomes our goal — to help them where they need it.”
Pratt said she hopes these programs continue to spread across Michigan.
The Bloomberg Philanthropies, established by former New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg, recently announced a $10 million donation to address Michigan’s opioid crisis. The organization will donate $50 million nationwide, and chose Michigan and Pennsylvania as the first two states to receive funds.
The initiative supports state-based initiatives, and Taverna said she hopes a lot of the funds go towards harm reduction efforts like syringe service programs.