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Orange County supervisors oppose mobile needle exchange proposal

Orange County supervisors oppose mobile needle exchange proposal
The Orange County Needle Exchange Program handed out syringes at the Santa Ana Civic Center before having its permit denied months ago. The program is awaiting state approval to operate a mobile service in Santa Ana, Anaheim, Orange and Costa Mesa. (Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)

The Orange County Board of Supervisors officially opposed a proposed mobile needle exchange service Tuesday in Santa Ana, Anaheim, Orange and Costa Mesa.

The supervisors’ resolution opposing the proposal — which passed 4-0 with Supervisor Shawn Nelson absent—directs the board’s clerk to submit the resolution to the California Department of Public Health. The state agency is considering the application for the mobile exchange submitted by the Orange County Needle Exchange Program.

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The group formerly operated out of the Santa Ana Civic Center before it was shut down in mid-January by the city, which cited an increased number of discarded syringes in the area. The needle exchange was the first and only one of its kind in Orange County.

Board Chairman Andrew Do and Supervisor Michelle Steel co-authored the resolution in an effort to prevent the program’s return.

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“It’s a failed experiment,” Do said at the meeting. “It failed because it subjects the public to major health risks because of the number of needles found.”

Steel said a mobile program could result in “even more needles in our streets.”

The California Department of Public Health has said the needle exchange doesn’t need approval from the cities it plans to operate in. As part of the state agency’s authorization process, department officials will consult with local law enforcement and health officers.

Do said it was important to note that the state can approve the program over the county’s objection.

However, Do said if the state authorizes the needle exchange, he intends to ask the Board of Supervisors to file a lawsuit to fight the action.

The approval process for the mobile service is currently in a public comment period that ends June 25.

Needle exchanges seek to provide drug users with clean needles to prevent the spread of infectious diseases, like HIV and hepatitis C, and other dangers posed by needles. The practice is endorsed by the American Medical Assn., the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, among others.

Supervisor Todd Spitzer, while supporting the resolution against the mobile exchange, said it’s a “major public health issue” when people share needles and he’d like to see an analysis of what the county is doing to reduce transfer of diseases.

“It falls on the taxpayer when people get communicable diseases,” Spitzer said.

Needle exchange representatives, in an emailed statement, took issue with many of the points brought up in the meeting.

Do stated during the meeting that the needle exchange is a “giveaway” program because it gives 20 needles in exchange for one.

The statement says this is incorrect.

Rather, for every needle a person turns in, the exchange gives that amount plus 20, with up to 200 needles maximum, the statement says. If a person brings in 10 needles, they receive 30 in return.

The California Department of Public Health recommends a “needs-based” distribution program, where clients receive as many needles as requested irrespective of how many they turn in.

Dallas Augustine, a needle exchange board member, has said the group chose locations away from residential zones, in light industrial areas. She also said being open for more hours will allow people to have a better chance to dispose of their used syringes with the needle exchange.

The group will also conduct walkthroughs of the planned sites to gather discarded syringes. There will be a phone hotline and email address for people to report used needles.

The group will also continue handing out sharps disposal containers to clients.

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