Licking County residents address health board, defend desire for needle exchange program

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A handful of people held a handful of signs outside the Licking County Health Department, Tuesday.

It was a silent protest that took place just before Tuesday evening's Licking County Board of Health meeting.

Inside the meeting, during a 30-minute public comment portion, those voices were heard.

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Nurses and neighbors, addicts and advocates voiced opposition about the decision made last month by the board to not allow a syringe exchange program in Licking County.

Billy McCall voiced his experience.

He was a drug user for 23 years. The last 10 years he used needles for heroin and meth. He's been clean the last year. He sees the value in a clean needle program.

"I never thought I'd be that person but when it came to not getting my fix or using a dirty syringe it was no question at that time," he said.

His mother, Patricia, says McCall has about a million dollars in medical bills. He had abscesses and endocarditis. He contracted Hepatitis C, as well. He says it was all because of dirty and shared needles.

"What [this program] is is a piece to the puzzle and it gives another outlet to get people into treatment," he said.

One woman, who is a recovering addict, told her story to the board, Tuesday.

The room went quiet.

"I've seen needles break off in peoples' arms," she said. "I've had abscesses and not gone to Licking [Memorial Hospital] because of warrants. I've had MRSA. None of that's enough to stop you."

Tuesday, she celebrates 7 months, 2 days clean. She says clean needles aren't enabling addicts. They're a chance to cut down on infections and diseases and exposure to the community. And, she says, it's a chance for an addict to change.

"The only hope is if you're giving them a clean needle, they'll survive long enough to get the help they need," she said.

Following Tuesday's meeting, Licking County Board of Health President, Neisha Grubaugh released a statement saying:

“The Board of Health appreciated the public coming to tonight’s meeting to address the board and expressing their views during the public comment portion. We are proud of the fact that the health department is committed to disease prevention by providing free Hepatitis A vaccines to at-risk populations, expanding their HIV and hepatitis testing programs in the clinic, offering free naloxone kits through their website and educating the public about the dangers of opioid abuse – among many other programs.”

There are currently around 20 counties in Ohio that participate in a syringe exchange program.