Five Charleston City Council members are sponsoring a resolution to support the Women’s Health Center of West Virginia in its proposal to offer syringe services. (Lexi Browning | West Virginia Watch)
As a medical researcher who has studied infective endocarditis, a condition that can be caused by reusing syringes, Frank Annie ran and won a Charleston City Council seat last year to be a “public health voice,” especially for harm reduction, an often contentious topic in city politics.
“I felt as if it was a major point for me to run because people that run for public office traditionally are lawyers or engineers or something else, there’s very few PhDs or physicians or public health people that do it,” Annie said. “And I thought this is something that I feel like I can make a difference on.”
Annie will get his first opportunity to support harm reduction tonight.
He’s one of five council members sponsoring a resolution to support Women’s Health Center of West Virginia in its proposal to offer syringe services. The former abortion clinic wants to offer what would be Kanawha County’s second harm reduction program, and the first on Charleston’s West Side.
“My feeling is being nervous,” Annie said. “This is something that [for] a year and a half I’ve tried to do to get in a position to do this, and you want to make sure everything’s perfect. I want to speak, probably at length, to council about the science behind all this.”
“It will feel good if we can get it passed, but the way everything’s structured here… then it has to go to county commission,” he said. “So if it gets through council, then it’s still not over.”
Council members Chelsea Steelhammer, Caitlin Cook, Mary Beth Hoover and Joe Solomon are also sponsoring the resolution.
Annie said he’s approached Monday’s vote like’s canvassing for election again. He tries to understand everyone’s perspective and opinion of the topic.
“You want to make sure that you’re being fair, empathetic, understanding people’s reasoning for not supporting the program and try to answer their questions as effectively as possible,” he said.
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 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the programs help stop the transmission of HIV and other blood borne illnesses like Hepatitis C among people who inject drugs.
In 2021, a representative of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control told local officials Kanawha County had one of the “most concerning” HIV outbreaks in the country. That year, there were 55 new HIV cases in the county, and 46 of them were tied to injection drug use, according to preliminary data from the state Department of Health and Human Resources.
Despite the increase in cases, state and local lawmakers in recent years have imposed restrictions on syringe services programs that health professionals say create barriers for people who need them. State law requires programs to operate with a goal of 1:1 exchange of syringes.
A Charleston ordinance about harm reduction — passed during a meeting in 2021 — goes beyond state law, 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.
Hoover, a Democrat who represents Ward 9 on the East End, said Friday she’s always supported harm reduction, even though she supported adding the restrictions, which go against the CDC’s guidelines for best practices of a harm reduction program.
The CDC supports needs-based syringe programs that allow people who use drugs to access a clean syringe every time they inject drugs as the best practice for reducing new HIV and viral hepatitis infections.
“The CDC guidelines — I understand where they’re coming from, because as many needles as you can have that’s more likely someone’s going to use a clean needle,” Hoover said. “But even at that time, I felt maybe that’s not right for our city right now.”
Hoover said with the city’s added restrictions in place, the floor debate on Monday shouldn’t be about harm reduction, but whether or not Women’s Health Center is following those guidelines.
“And they are,” Hoover said. “They’re doing everything we asked any needle exchange in the city to do. They’re meeting those guidelines. And now they’re coming to us for approval, which is also in our guidelines. And so, to me — my vote will be yes.”
Steelhammer, who represents ward 10 on the East End, said she’s supporting the proposal because “this is something that Charleston needs.” She cited the area’s high rate of hepatitis C.
According to the Department of Health and Human Resources, Kanawha County had about 620 chronic hepatitis C cases diagnosed in 2021.
“We need to stop letting people die just because they use drugs,” Steelhammer said.
Monday’s vote comes more than a week after an at-times contentious public hearing about the proposal. More than 60 people attended. Thirteen speakers supported the proposal, and seven spoke against it. Staff from the city clerk’s office read 10 letters of support and two in opposition to allowing the clinic to offer syringe services.
One opponent was Councilwoman Jeanine Faegre, who represents Ward 5, where the Women’s Health Center is located.
“It’s not that anyone in this room is against harm reduction,” Faegre said during the hearing. “We are against you handing a needle to someone that’s going to put it in their arm.”
Faegre raised concerns about, among other things, potential needle litter in the neighborhood, which is less than a mile from West Side Middle School. She also spoke about a different health clinic’s plan to offer medication assisted treatment at another location on the West Side.
“One side of the tracks [treatment] to keep them off of hard drugs. The other side of the tracks, give them the needle so they can do the hard drugs,” Faegre said. “So I ask you, do you want us to live in fear? What would your fear be?… you’re going to open a harm reduction or a needle exchange program two blocks from a middle school? Two blocks from a middle school. I find that atrocious that someone would even think to do that.”
Solomon said it’s no surprise that people have different opinions about how to save the next generation from the drug epidemic.
“We’ve all lost someone here, and we all mourn differently,” Solomon said. “And I think that’s showing up a lot with this harm reduction vote. Some people are staying in denial. That’s also a form of mourning. They’re saying, ‘look, we don’t want to bring people who use drugs into our neighborhood,’ And that’s a form of denial since every single ward in the city has folks who use drugs there. Our neighbors who use drugs are very much already here.”
As the council meeting approaches, Iris Sidikman, the clinic’s harm reduction program coordinator, wanted to remind city council members the vote isn’t about past programs or syringe services in general, but about a program that would be held to the same standards and laws as the city’s existing harm reduction program.
“I know it can be an emotional and contentious issue, but I hope that that doesn’t distract folks from seeing what it is as a medical service in a medical clinic,” they said.
If council votes for the proposal, Women’s Health Center would still need the approval of the Kanawha County Commission as part of its license application to the state.
Charleston City Council will meet at 7 p.m. Monday, Aug. 7 at city hall. The meeting will be broadcast online through the city’s website.
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