Above-capacity crowd turns out for syringe services public hearing 

By: - July 28, 2023 5:59 am

Iris Sidikman, harm reduction program coordinator for Women’s Health Center of West Virginia, speaks during a public hearing Thursday about the former abortion clinic’s bid to offer syringe services on Charleston’s West Side. (Lori Kersey | West Virginia Watch)

About 20 people spoke during a public hearing Thursday evening about a Charleston clinic’s bid to add a syringe services program to the city’s West Side. 

Thirteen speakers said they support the Women’s Health Center of West Virginia’s plan to offer a harm reduction program. Seven spoke in opposition to the proposal. 

More than 60 people crowded into the Goodwill Prosperity Center on Charleston’s West Side for the meeting. 

A couple dozen others  —  City Clerk Miles Cary said — were in a separate room in the building as the city attempted to accommodate the above-capacity crowd. 

The hearing started a half hour late as city staff negotiated with the fire marshal and the building’s owners to admit more people to the room and connect a speaker to the overflow room so that people could hear.

Iris Sidikman, Women’s Health Center’s harm reduction program coordinator, explained that the program would offer people more than syringes, it would offer wound care, overdose prevention supplies, reproductive care, as well as referrals to behavioral health care, primary health care and substance use treatment. 

Sidikman also addressed concerns about needle litter, saying that the Women’s Health Center already has a syringe disposal box on its property and plans to have a monthly needle pick up event and a hotline for people to call when they see syringes that need to be picked up. 

They asked that people keep “an open mind and an open heart,”  about harm reduction during the hearing.

“This work is too important and too vital to be guided by fear or disdain or past grudges,” they said. “Secondly, I ask that you listen to the facts that are shared here today. Syringe service programs reduce rates of HIV, hepatitis C and fatal overdose. They reduce rates of syringe litter. People who use syringe service programs are five times more likely to pursue treatment. These are all facts directly from the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.]”

Women’s Health Center of West Virginia was the state’s only abortion provider for years until September 2022, when the state Legislature passed a near-total ban on the procedure with few exceptions. 

If the clinic gets a state license to offer syringe services, it would be the first to do so on the West Side and the second program in Kanawha County, whose HIV cases tied to injection drug use have increased in recent years, prompting a CDC representative in early 2021 to call it the “most concerning [outbreak] in the United States.” 

Only recently is the rate of HIV cases in Kanawha County starting to go down. 

In addition to the speakers, a Charleston City Clerk’s Office staff member read into the record 10 letters of support and two in opposition to allowing the clinic to offer syringe services. 

West Side residents Pam Stevens and her husband Tom Stevens were two of those who opposed the clinic distributing syringes. The couple lost their 44-year-old son who struggled with addiction for nearly 20 years, she said. Both said they support harm reduction programs with the exception of clean syringes.

“We need harm reduction programs,” she said, “But a dirty needle trade-in program, while not intended, actually provides more opportunities for drug abusers to get more needles to get a fix of fentanyl, the deadliest sold by drug dealers.” 

“And where do you think those drug dealers are going to go for new business? To the location where the clean needles are given away for free,” she said. 

According to the CDC, syringe services programs can reduce the occurrence of HIV and hepatitis C, and improve public safety through safe needle provision and disposal. They are not associated with an increase in crime, according to the CDC. 

Harm reduction programs generally work to reduce overdose deaths by providing sterile syringes, distributing naloxone and fentanyl testing strips and providing overdose prevention and education, according to the CDC.

Danni Dineen, a member of the city of Charleston’s Coordinated Addiction Response Effort office, spoke in support of the Women’s Health Center’s proposal. Dineen is in long-term recovery. As quick response team coordinator, she responds to when overdoses happen in the city, offering people treatment options.

Dineen said without the help of a recovery coach she met at a harm reduction program she went to in another community, she would not have gotten into recovery after she relapsed.

“It was in my darkest hour that I knew where I could go to for help,” she said. “It was that recovery coach — the only person that treated me with love, compassion and dignity, week after week, despite my drug use. I want to see the folks that I serve here in Charleston have that same opportunity.”

West Side resident Jerry Lacy opposed the program, saying he didn’t want it in his front yard. 

“Ever since we’ve added the dirty needle drop box, the transients out through there have gotten worse. The trash is atrocious,” he said. “So this is just detrimental to our property on the West Side,” he said

After starting a half hour late, the hearing lasted about 80 minutes and was mostly civil. It dissolved into yelling first after a male speaker misgendered a transgender member of the clinic’s staff and another corrected him. People again started to argue when a woman attempted to speak for the second time that night, going against a three-minute limit for comments. 

Not long after the latter, Cary called for an end to the meeting. He said everyone who wanted to speak had gotten the chance.

As a part of Women’s Health Center’s application for a state license to distribute syringes, the clinic must get support from the majority of the Kanawha County Commission and Charleston City Council. 

With the public hearing done, Charleston City Council will vote on the proposal at an upcoming meeting. 

Charleston officials said they had not set a date for that vote as of Thursday night. 

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story misstated the manner of death of the son of one of the speakers, Pam Stevens.


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Lori Kersey
Lori Kersey

Lori Kersey is a reporter with a decade of experience reporting in West Virginia. She covers state government for West Virginia Watch.