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Smyth County Community Hospital CEO urges Virginia subcommittee to extend harm reduction program

Wednesday, January 29, 2020

Smyth County Community Hospital CEO urges Virginia subcommittee to extend harm reduction program

Smyth County Community Hospital CEO James Tyler testified before the Virginia Senate Health Subcommittee today in support of continuing the state health department’s harm reduction and syringe services program.

Tyler traveled to the Virginia state capitol to speak in support of Senate Bill 864. That bill would eliminate a sunset provision on Virginia’s Comprehensive Harm Reduction and Syringe Services program, which uses evidence-based practices such as needle exchanges to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS, hepatitis C and other bloodborne pathogens among injection drug users, their families and the larger community. The program is part of Ballad Health’s collaborative efforts to combat the opioid epidemic.

Senator Todd E. Pillion (R-40) introduced the bill, remarking, “With support of local law enforcement and healthcare providers, harm reduction programs are recognized as being widely successful in opening treatment opportunities for those battling addiction. Addiction impacts nearly every family in our region. With this bill, we can have more of our family, friends and neighbors on the path to recovery.”

Southwest Virginia is home to two of the state’s three comprehensive harm reduction and syringe service programs in Wise County and Smyth County. The other program is in Richmond.

“In addition to halting the spread of disease, this program is intended to reduce the incidence of substance-related health and social harms, as well as diminish the stigma that is far too often associated with people who are drug dependent,” Tyler said.

“For example, this program teaches users how to reduce the harm of injection, which reduces the risk of skin infection, abscesses in the skin and bacterial endocarditis that causes disability and death.”

The Smyth County harm reduction program, which opened in December 2018, serves 115 individuals who have visited a total of 839 times. Since beginning the program, Tyler said five people have stopped using substances, and 27% of individuals have decreased the amount they use. Since November, Tyler said there have been 10 overdose reversals using Narcan.

“Comprehensive harm reduction is a way to reach persons in active addiction and link them with tools, education and services to reduce the personal harm of their drug use, reduce harm to the community and increase their chance of entering recovery,” said Dr. Karen Shelton, director of the Mount Rogers Health District.

“We appreciate the support of the Smyth County Rural Health Opioid Prevention partners, Smyth County Community Hospital and Ballad Health for providing this service for our community.”

The program offers new needles in exchange for used needles. For 2019, Tyler said the return rate was 94%. So far in 2020, the return rate has increased to 97%. Other services offered include:

  • Helps people who are ready for treatment get into programs that will be most beneficial for them
  • Links users to medical and behavioral healthcare
  • Provides birth control to reduce the risk of substance-exposed infants and Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome
  • Provides Narcan, the overdose reversal drug
  • Provides peer support with experience of living with addiction 
  • Provides referrals to social services, housing and food banks

“This program meets people where they are in their addiction and provides a path to improve their health and their life until they are ready to enter recovery. It offers them a genuine sense of hope,” Tyler said.

“Among the reasons I’ve heard for participating in the program include, ‘I want to get a better job,’ ‘I want to go back to school and earn my master’s degree,’ and ‘I want to be a better parent to my children than my parents were to me.’”

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