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Kenny Kemp/HD Media Used syringes inside a disposal container at the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department in August 2016.

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.

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