Amy Lindsey | GC News-Gazette The Grayson County Health Department holds a public health forum at the Grayson County Middle School to answer any questions and explain how it will work.

Amy Lindsey | GC News-Gazette

The Grayson County Health Department holds a public health forum at the Grayson County Middle School to answer any questions and explain how it will work.

The Grayson County Health Department held a public health forum last Saturday to discuss the harm reduction/needle exchange program the organization is trying to implement in Leitchfield.

Several health professionals familiar with syringe exchange programs gathered in the Grayson County Middle School auditorium to educate the community about the program and to answer any questions citizens may have regarding the program.

Grayson County Public Health Director Mindy Renfrow said there are a lot of theories, stigma, and negative outlooks circulating through the community regarding the program, but her goal and that of the health department is, primarily, to protect the community's health and well-being, and a syringe exchange does that by preventing the spread of disease through the use of contaminated needles.

"These programs work," Renfrow said.

According to Renfrow, anyone participating in the program will be allowed up to 15 new retractable syringes on their first visit. After that, syringes will be available on a one-for-one exchange basis, she said.

Renfrow said that a 2016-2017 Centers for Disease Control study reported 383 Hepatitis C cases and 16 cases of HIV in Grayson County. She hopes that this program will help keep those numbers from rising.

Twin Lakes Medical Stabilization Program Director Jessica Embry served as the first featured speaker of the event and said that, in addition to reducing the spread of disease, syringe exchanges also increase the likelihood of participants' entering into treatment for their addiction.

Treatment, she said, is not always as simple as the scenario in which, if a person wants treatment, he or she will get it; sometimes, an individual must know there are resources available to help him or her.

According to Matt LaRocco Harm Reduction and Community Outreach Specialist, people will continue to use drugs whether they have clean needles or not, so giving them clean needles does not enable them to do drugs; rather, it lessens the likelihood of spreading disease.

"Currently, we spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to treat Hep C and HIV, but this program can help lower that amount," LaRocco said.

According to Dr. Gay Fulkerson, in her practice she tries to educate patients and their families on how to slow the spread of disease. She feels that the needle exchange program can help do just that, saying that the goal of this program is to educate the community and provide people with as many resources as possible.

"Keeping first responders safe is a top priority," Fulkerson said.

Monica Ridgeway, Program Coordinator for the Cabinet for Health and Family Services/Department for Public Health said that drug users are often stigmatized. According to Ridgeway, drug users are seen as criminals, not fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, nurses, pastors, friends, or neighbors.

"Addicts can be anybody that you love and sometimes we forget that," Ridgeway said. "This affects everybody."

She said we need to change the way we treat people.

"We need to treat people who are on drugs like people because that's what they are, and, sometimes, we treat drug users like they aren't people anymore," said Ridgeway.

Success rates will be measured by using a program called Red Cap, according to Ridgeway. She said it will gather information regarding clients' drug usage, types of drugs used and how often the client uses the program. Red Cap also keeps track of patients who were tested for HIV and Hep C, if the client has received Narcan/Naloxone, and any counseling the client has received.

"If we save one life or get one person into rehab, we're successful," Renfrow said.

According to Amber Broaddus, of the Central Kentucky Harm Reduction Coalition, the program will take time to get fully established because it takes time for people to become comfortable using the program, but once they are, they are more likely to take advantage of treatment and counseling options provided to them.

Renfrow said that anyone in the state of Kentucky will be welcome to use the program, and several Grayson County residents are currently using exchange programs in other counties.

The program has already received approval for implementation by the Grayson County Board of Health and the Leitchfield City Council. It will be brought before the Grayson County Fiscal Court for consideration later this month. If the Fiscal Court approves it, the local syringe exchange will be implemented.

The program would be funded by grants from the federal government, not from local tax dollars, according to Thad Storms, Communicare Prevention Specialist/Grayson County Health Department Accreditation and Outreach Coordinator. $21,000 has already been set aside for this program for one fiscal year, and advocates are trying to get an additional $200,000 for other harm reduction services for our area.

According to a pamphlet from the Grayson County Health Department, services provided would include a one-for-one needle exchange; HIV/Hepatitis C testing; referral for drug care treatment, medical care and other community resources; education about safe needle practices; and Naloxone training for use during an overdose situation.

This program is expected to reduce the spread of disease, connect people with community services (treatment, housing, food and medical care), raise awareness about drug use and overdoses, and to provide a safe way to dispose of needles.

There will be no use of illegal drugs on health department property, and all clients, patients, and staff will be treated with respect, officials say.