The Women’s Health Center of West Virginia, located on Charleston’s West Side. (Lexi Browning | West Virginia Watch)
Nearly a year after halting abortion services in the wake of a near-total state ban, a Charleston clinic aims to add another kind of health care its leader says is “unfairly stigmatized” and “oftentimes demonized.”
Women’s Health Center of West Virginia plans to apply for a state license to add syringe services as a part of a program aimed at reducing the negative effects of injection drug use.
“There’s just a need for it,” Executive Director Katie Quiñonez said of harm reduction. “At Women’s Health Center, we have always felt that we need more health care in our communities, and harm reduction is health care. Period.”
The clinic was West Virginia’s only abortion provider for five years until state lawmakers passed a ban on the procedure with few exceptions in September.
If approved, the Women’s Health Center would become the second Charleston clinic to offer syringe services in a county that has seen a troubling increase in HIV cases tied to injection drug use in recent years — a rate that’s only just beginning to decline in the state.
Kanawha County is home to what a representative of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention called “the most concerning [HIV outbreak] in the United States” in early 2021.
Syringe services programs offer people who use injection drugs sterile syringes, as well as safe disposal of syringes and screening and care for other diseases. According to the CDC, the programs help stop the transmission of HIV and other blood borne illnesses among people who inject drugs.
I would venture to say that everyone knows someone who uses drugs, and all of them deserve to, first and foremost, be alive, and second, be healthy and safe.
– Katie Quiñonez, Women's Health Center
Local and state leaders in recent years imposed restrictions on syringe services programs that health officials said create barriers for people who need them.
By state law, syringe services programs must obtain a license from the state Office for Health Facility Licensure and Certification. The programs must operate with the goal of a 1:1 distribution model, meaning they get back every syringe they distribute, and require proof of West Virginia residency for distribution.
The city of Charleston’s regulations go a step further, requiring that syringe services programs get a return of a “minimum of 90% of the syringes distributed” and adding a misdemeanor charge with fines of $500 to $1,000 for each convicted offense.
Women’s Health Center’s Harm Reduction Program Coordinator Iris Sidikman said the clinic is aiming to do whatever it can within state and city rules to make its program accessible.
“We don’t want to set up any barriers in addition to what already exists,” they said.
That means, for instance, the clinic will not require photo ID but will instead use a list of state-approved forms of identification.
Sidikman is pursuing a master’s degree in social work with an emphasis on harm reduction.
As an LGBTQ+ person who’s experienced discrimination in medical care, Sidikman said harm reduction was a concept that made sense to them when they heard about it.
“Allowing people to take care of their communities, take care of themselves, to be able to just speak what they need — that really hit home for me,” they said.
Sidikman said the program will draw guidance and expertise from the people who use it.
“The people who are going to be coming in as participants are going to know better than I do what they need, when they need it, how they need it,” they said. “It’s my job, really, to listen to them, and to create the program that they need. So I have the expertise of all those wonderful people to lean on as well.”
Sidikman has been leading the clinic’s efforts to get community support and buy-in for the proposed program, talking with residents, business owners and faith leaders in the neighborhood about the clinic’s plans, they said.
The clinic may be in for an uphill battle.
As a part of its application for a state license, the clinic must get support from the majority of the Kanawha County Commission and Charleston City Council.
A public hearing with city officials is planned for 6 to 7 p.m. July 27 at the Goodwill Prosperity Center on Charleston’s West Side.
The city council is expected to vote on whether or not to support the proposal at a future meeting. Quiñonez said the clinic would ask the county commission for its support if and when the city signs off on the proposal.
Jeanine Faegre, who represents city council ward 5, which includes the Women’s Health Center, said last week she does not anticipate voting in support of the clinic offering syringe services.
Faegre said she doesn’t think the clinic understands what it would be undertaking by distributing syringes at its location, less than a mile from West Side Middle School.
“Primarily my concern is about the close proximity to the middle school,” Faegre said. “There are children that are in the sixth grade. Those are kids that walk up and down West Washington Street, and I would hate to see someone get hurt or step on a needle, or go to pick up a needle — just so many things that possibly could happen.”
Quiñonez and Sidikman said they share Faegre’s concern about needle litter. The clinic already installed a syringe disposal box on its property — something Quiñonez said was used by a community member the day after its installation.
According to the CDC, syringe services programs reduce the presence of discarded needles by providing a way to safely dispose of used syringes.
The clinic also plans to have a monthly event to pick up syringes in the neighborhood and offer a hotline residents can call to have a staff member pick up any syringes found.
Quiñonez said the needle litter concern is valid but also makes wrong assumptions about people who use drugs.
“We’re making the assumption that they’re going to use their syringes, and then just carelessly throw them on the ground,” she said. “That’s not the reality.”
It’s been a challenge to dispel myths about harm reduction programs, Quñonez added.
“There is not only community buy-in from the people who are using it,” she pointed out. “They want this program to continue existing, and they know that part of that is complying with all the protocols.”
Syringe services will be a “small piece” of a program that also offers HIV, hepatitis C and sexually transmitted infection testing, and referral to treatment, as well as “robust referral networks for primary care, mental and behavioral health recovery,” she said.
Another myth, she said, is that the health center’s current patients may not want to receive their care alongside people who use drugs accessing harm reduction services.
“The reality is that that’s already happening,” Quiñonez said. “We are already providing a whole host of other health care services to people who use drugs … I would venture to say that everyone knows someone who uses drugs, and all of them deserve to, first and foremost, be alive, and second, be healthy and safe.”
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