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Needle exchange program audit requested

HUNTINGTON — Cabell County Commissioner Kelli Sobonya said she's requested an audit of the Cabell-Huntington Health Department's needle exchange program.

The request comes in light of Cabell County having the only known cluster of HIV cases in West Virginia, primarily among intravenous drug users. It follows a similar audit of a needle exchange program operating in Kanawha County.

The West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources (DHHR) said the request is under consideration. The biggest hindrance in getting the audit will be securing funding for it, Sobonya said.

Sobonya, who served 16 years in the West Virginia House of Delegates, began a term as a Cabell County Commissioner in January. While campaigning and since taking office, Sobonya said she's heard from many constituents about their concerns with the program, known as the Harm Reduction Program.

People mainly expressed concern with a requirement that participants in the program be Cabell County residents. People fear the program is attracting the wrong type of people to the county, who can get identification using the homeless shelter's address, Sobonya said.

"It's been noted that people are made to be Cabell Countians. There's a transient population that has come here for the social services, the soup kitchens, the homeless shelters and the free needles, syringes and drug kits that are given out," she said.

"They basically can come here and live here for free, walk the streets with their backpacks and there's a lot of property crime."

Recently, Sobonya said she saw an increase in constituent calls after news that Logan County Commissioners voted to prohibit any type of needle exchange programs from operating in Logan County.

"Since the Logan County Commission made that action to prohibit the needle exchange in their county, I've been getting a lot of contacts from people here saying, 'Why not Cabell County?'" she said.

Sobonya said while she is not a fan of the program, she is not against public health initiatives and understands the position of health officials who are in favor of it. Health officials have said years of studies show harm reduction programs are an effective way to curtail the spread of bloodborne diseases by providing clean syringes to IV drug users.

However, Sobonya questioned why there was a reported increase in HIV cases in Cabell County and not in Charleston, where Kanawha County officials suspended its needle exchange program in May 2018.

"If the needle exchange program is effective, you would think the largest city in Kanawha County would have had an increase or have a cluster by not having the needles and not Cabell County, that has a very active needle exchange program," she said.

As of last month, the number of reported HIV cases in Cabell County is up to 49 confirmed cases, according to the DHHR. All the cases were contracted by intravenous drug use through sharing of contaminated syringes. The cluster, tracked since January 2018, represents a sharp uptick from the baseline average of eight cases annually over the past five years.

Sobonya said she's in favor of finding out data on the program through an audit, similar to one performed on the Kanawha Charleston Health Department's program. That audit found staff were too overwhelmed to accurately track the number of needles flowing out into the community, which was a criticism made by first responders and community members who expressed fear of needles being improperly discarded. That program was suspended indefinitely after stringent rules were imposed by Charleston's former chief of police.

Sobonya has since sent a letter to the DHHR requesting the audit. She said the department responded by asking if the request was coming from the Cabell County Commission or just her. Sobonya said she made the request and not on behalf of the commission.

Sobonya spoke with DHHR Secretary Bill Crouch, who said his department is strapped for cash and wondered if the Cabell County Commission could pay for the audit.

However, she said there was a precedent set by the DHHR, who paid for the audit of Kanawha County's program. She has since spoke with House of Delegates Finance Chair Eric Householder, who said he would research state grants to possibly help pay for the audit.

Allison Adler, communications director for the DHHR, said Sobonya's request was received and is under consideration. The Cabell-Huntington Health Department has not yet received any request for an audit, said Elizabeth Adkins, public information officer.

Travis Crum is a reporter for The Herald-Dispatch. He may be reached by phone at 304-526-2801.


Local artists display works at Ritter Park

HUNTINGTON — While it's difficult to add to the beauty Huntington's historic Ritter Park has to offer, artists found a way Sunday with their artworks displayed at Art in the Park.

Presented by Tri-State Arts Association, the bi-yearly event is held in Ritter Park, offering free admission to view a juried exhibition of artists from West Virginia, Kentucky and Ohio.

Each artist had their original art and prints for sale, but taking in the beauty cost nothing.

The event had been scheduled to take place over the entire weekend, but Saturday's event was canceled due to bad weather.

Even with rain drizzle continuing throughout Sunday, the show went on. Artists, attendees and park passersby browsed a variety of art from about a dozen community artists ranging from woodworks to paintings throughout Sunday afternoon.

The event gives artists a unique way to introduce their art to a new crowd they might not have been able to find otherwise.

Art in the Park newcomer artist Linda Childers, of Ona, a water colorist and pastelist, said it was her first time participating in the event. Childers, who sells her art through Art by Linda, spent 32 years as a school teacher before retiring to focus on her art.

Originally the art was on decorative cookies, but a few years ago she changed to a more permanent medium.

"My hopes are to have fun. That's my number one thing. I want to have fun doing my art, and I want to have fun selling my art," she said.

"Secondly, I want to make people who come aware of my work. I sell my things in several different shops, but this is a way to inform more people about what I do."

Photographer Linda Clifford, of Metamorphosis Images in Milton and the Ohio Valley Camera Club of West Virginia, found at ovccwv.org, has been attending the event since about 1996. She said it is a lot of fun, but also a lot of work.

"I love Art in the Park because it's a great opportunity to get out and meet people in the Tri-State," she said. "It's also a nice opportunity to make money, but it's nice to get to talk to the people who are art lovers and like to look around, as well as the other members of our organization."

While selling her photography, Clifford was also promoting the camera club, which has been active for 60 years. She said not many people know about the club, but it's a great way for anyone interested in photography to learn about the art.

Follow reporter Courtney Hessler at Facebook.com/CHesslerHD and via Twitter @HesslerHD.

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For more photos, go to www.herald-dispatch.com.


States discuss standards for high-speed police pursuits

HUNTINGTON — Dangerous police pursuits have states looking into creating government standards for pursuit procedures.

In April, a police chase that stretched from Milton to Dunbar left several people injured. The pursuit was initiated on Alex Nathaniel Foster, 25, after state parole officers sent out an alert for his whereabouts to dispatchers. He was spotted by Milton police and fled, being chased by officers from several agencies into two counties.

According to MPD, the suspect hit several cars, injuring several people, before he was apprehended while attempting to hijack a vehicle from an elderly driver in Dunbar.

Foster was charged with fleeing with reckless indifference and two counts of child neglect creating risk of serious injury or death in relation to the pursuit, and was additionally charged with grand larceny and had a capias.

Chases like this one are what prompted several states to look into adopting a statewide standard to protect the general public in police chases, so every police department has a consistent procedure.

Locally, Huntington Police Department's pursuit policy is a lengthy, pages-long explanation of how to handle a pursuit situation, according to Huntington Police Chief Hank Dial.

Dial said supervisors actively monitor each pursuit and decide on a case-by-case basis whether or not to continue, factoring in things including the seriousness of the crime committed by the individual being pursued, how populated the area is where

the chase is occurring, the speed of the chase and road conditions. All supervisors have the authority to end a pursuit.

"We do constant risk assessment on the pursuit to determine if it's a justified or good decision to continue the pursuit or end it," Dial said.

In Ohio, Gov. Mike DeWine has asked the state's Collaborative Community-Police Advisory Board to develop minimum standards for law enforcement agencies to create a consistent approach to pursuits to help prevent people getting seriously injured or killed when a driver flees from police, the Associated Press reported.

The Department of Public Safety says at least 545 departments employing more than 28,000 officers have either met the existing standards or are working to meet them.

Connecticut officials announced in May they are also considering a statewide standard restricting car chases.

No such statewide policy has been adopted or proposed in West Virginia.

Follow reporter Megan Osborne on Twitter and Facebook @megosborneHD.