Thanks to legislation that’s now on it’s way to the Governor’s desk any Virginia locality will be able to start a needle exchange. The bill also makes it easier to get those new sites up and running.
There are currently only four needle exchanges in the state. They’re in Wise County, Smyth County, Roanoke City and Richmond City.
The Health Brigade runs the site in Richmond, which will sometimes travel around in a van to two different mobile locations.
One recent afternoon in Church Hill, over the course of about an hour, a dozen people stop by. Emily Westerholm, who runs the program, says some are there to get clean needles and others education.
“Some of the folks were just community members that wanted to get the naloxone or narcan training,” she says.
Since last March participants in this exchange have used naloxone to reverse over 300 overdoses. Ultimately saving lives is the entire point of needle exchange programs. They connect people to healthcare as well as HIV and Hepatitis C testing.
"This is some place where people can come and not feel judged and they feel safe. It's one of the only places they can come and not feel stigmatized," says Westerholm.
Legislation that has now passed Virginia’s House and Senate make it easier for more needle exchange programs to start. It removes a requirement that local law enforcement give their approval. That’s been a barrier in several places.
It also provides legal immunity from paraphernalia laws to participants who are returning needles. Westerholm says that may help convince more people to visit.
“If they have their participant card and they can show proof that they’re a part of our program this will give them that protection so they can return syringes,” Westerholm explains.
An official with the Department of Health says there aren’t any pending applications for needle exchanges, likely because potential operators were waiting to see what happens with this legislation.