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Costa Mesa ‘appalled’ after state approves mobile needle-exchange program in 4 O.C. cities

Costa Mesa ‘appalled’ after state approves mobile needle-exchange program in 4 O.C. cities
The Orange County Needle Exchange Program handed out syringes at the Santa Ana Civic Center before its permit was denied in January. The state Department of Public Health this week approved an application for the program to operate in Costa Mesa and three other area cities. (File Photo)

Despite the staunch opposition of Costa Mesa community and police leaders, the California Department of Public Health has approved a nonprofit’s proposal to operate a mobile needle-exchange service in the city’s Westside, as well as in three other Orange County cities.

Supporters say the program is intended to provide clean needles to help prevent the spread of diseases among intravenous drug users.

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This week’s decision drew swift condemnation from Costa Mesa Mayor Sandy Genis, who said she was “appalled that state officials would approve this needle-exchange program in our community.”

“We are going to quickly examine our options and will continue to oppose this irresponsible program,” she said in a statement Tuesday night.

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Ahead of the decision, Costa Mesa police officials and City Council members sent letters and made public statements outlining their concerns that the program could attract drug users to the community and potentially undermine the recovery of residents in local sober-living homes.

As approved by the state, the Orange County Needle Exchange Program will be able to distribute needles and other supplies on West 17th Street between Whittier Avenue and the city boundary from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Wednesdays and Sundays for two years starting next week.

The program also will operate in Anaheim, Orange and Santa Ana.

“Our harm-reduction approach is a key, research-driven way to save lives and quell the spread of infectious disease,” Dallas Augustine, a member of the program’s board of directors, said in a statement Wednesday. “We look forward to working closely with elected officials, law enforcement and communities throughout Orange County to improve public safety and promote public health for all of our residents.”

In a letter to the affected cities, Department of Public Health Director Karen Smith wrote that the application met state guidelines and the department determined “there is a public health need for these services due to the significant risk for transmission of HIV and Hepatitis C among people who inject drugs in Orange County.”

The department “identified Orange County as among the California counties most vulnerable to rapid spread of injection drug-use-related … infections,” Smith wrote.

However, the city of Costa Mesa said in a news release that it “will be in contact with officials in Santa Ana, Anaheim and Orange, and the City Council will explore all potential options to protect Costa Mesa and its residents, business owners and visitors.”

The needle-exchange program — previously the only one of its kind in Orange County — used to operate out of the Santa Ana Civic Center, but that city scrapped the program in January, citing an increase in the number of discarded syringes in the area.

The Orange County Board of Supervisors also expressed opposition to the program’s proposal, as did leaders in Newport Beach.

Board of Supervisors Chairman Andrew Do announced Wednesday afternoon that the board would hold an emergency meeting at 8:30 a.m. Friday in Santa Ana to discuss possible litigation aimed at halting the program.

As part of the state’s approval, the needle exchange agreed to work with the Orange County Health Care Agency to increase options for sharps disposal, provide additional syringe collection services and operate a hotline for reports of improperly discarded syringes and other concerns.

State officials also narrowed when and where the program can operate. Originally, the group proposed operating in Costa Mesa from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily in the area between West 16th and West 18th streets, from Monrovia Avenue west to the outer border of the Armstrong Petroleum building.

Genis said, however, that “the applicants for this program made no public outreach efforts in Costa Mesa, and their poor application demonstrates they don’t care about our city. Further, they have a terrible record when it comes to collecting the needles that are passed out at a rate of 20 needles or more for every one collected.”

5:30 p.m.: This article was updated with the announcement of the Board of Supervisors’ emergency meeting.

2:15 p.m.: This article was updated with the statement from Dallas Augustine.

This article was originally published at 11:25 a.m.

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