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Dr. Michael Kilkenny, physician director for the Cabell-Huntington Health Department, speaks with media before the opening of a free COVID-19 drive-thru testing site on May 22, 2020, in Huntington.

HUNTINGTON — Despite a new law making it harder to operate the life-saving operations, the Cabell-Huntington Health Department will continue to offer syringe exchange services.

The Cabell Board of Health voted unanimously Wednesday to continue operating the program at the behest of health officer and CEO Dr. Michael Kilkenny. Kilkenny said with the help of grants the department already has for the program, they will be able to operate under the law and still rebound from the pandemic-driven increase in overdoses.

The new state law goes into effect July 9. Senate Bill 334 established a licensing program within the state Department of Health and Human Resources for harm reduction programs operating syringe exchange programs. All new and existing programs will need to apply to the Office for Health Facility Licensure and Certification. Programs will need support from the majority of the county commission and the majority of the governing body of a municipality. In the case of the Cabell-Huntington department, they will need both Cabell County Commission and Huntington City Council support.

Kilkenny said clients of the syringe exchange will likely not see many changes as they already operate similarly to the law as they interpret it. He also said there are rules still left to be written, so things could change before July 9.

“We hope we will be able to continue without severe restrictions, and we know what the impact is of severe restrictions,” Kilkenny said. “And it’s not good and it hasn’t been good in other communities around the world where they have HIV spreading in injection drug use. I hate to see we are even entertaining these concepts as being appropriate. They just aren’t helpful. But we think we will be all right.”

Kilkenny said being too small is better than not being there at all. But if they find costs have increased too much without making a dent in the stats of the community, they may have to revisit operating the program.

The Cabell-Huntington Health Department started its syringe exchange in 2015 as cases of hepatitis C and HIV increased. Reports of hepatitis C dropped 60% from 2016 to 2017.

In 2018, after a Huntington police officer was stuck with a needle while searching a suspect, the police department approached the health department about changing some protocols in the exchange program. Then-police Chief Hank Dial said crime had increased since the program started and said there was an increase in needle litter.

Dial and Kilkenny worked together to reach a compromise for the program, implementing many of the things listed in SB 334, such as a goal of giving one needle for each needle returned and requiring a Cabell County ID.

While the changes led to better return rates for used syringes, they also led to an outbreak of HIV.

The outbreak was reported in March 2019, with the first cases identified at the end of 2018. From January 2018 to January 2019, 28 cases of HIV were diagnosed in Cabell County. Most were Cabell County residents who were intravenous drug users.

This was an uptick from an average of eight cases over five years prior to 2018.

There were 40 cases reported in the county in 2020. So far in 2021, there have been nine, according to DHHR.

The health department syringe exchange operates from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Friday.

Reporter Taylor Stuck can be reached at tstuck@hdmediallc.com. Follow her on Twitter and Facebook @TaylorStuckHD.

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