Clallam County Health Officer Chris Frank tells more than 30 people who attended the recent Port Angeles Citizens Action Network forum that the county’s harm reduction efforts, such as the syringe exchange and distribution of naloxone, prevents the spread of disease and saves lives. (Jesse Major/Peninsula Daily News)

Clallam health officer highlights needle exchange’s progress

PORT ANGELES — About 400 people in Clallam County use the county’s syringe exchange, which is intended to save lives and reduce the risk of spreading disease.

“We try to prevent overdoses because you can’t help anyone when they’re dead,” Clallam County Health Officer Chris Frank told more than 30 people at a recent Port Angeles Citizens Action Network forum on opioids and HIV.

Last year, the exchange handed out 234,270 needles.

At the exchange, clients can get tested for HIV and hepatitis C, which can both be spread through sharing needles.

The test for hepatitis C takes about 15 minutes and clients are encouraged to get tested annually.

By letting intravenous drug users know if they have a disease, it reduces the risk of it being spread to others in the community, he said.

“People are using with friends and family,” Frank said at the Thursday gathering. “Just because someone is using doesn’t mean they don’t care about the people around them.”

The majority of people who use the exchange are doing what Frank called “secondary exchanges,” meaning they collect the used needles from their group of drug users and exchange for the group.

In 2016, the county switched to exchanging needles on a one-to-one basis, causing the number of needles handed out to decrease from 284,395 in 2015 to 234,270 in 2016. In 2014, the county gave away 273,959 needles.

Jefferson County’s syringe exchange gave out 35,328 needles in 2015. Numbers for 2016 weren’t yet available.

Frank said if the exchanges didn’t provide clean needles, users would just share dirty needles and use anyway.

“You give people clean needles so you don’t have people passing around dirty needles,” he said.

The Clallam County exchange also provides naloxone for opioid users, a drug that rapidly counteracts the effects of opioid overdose.

Naloxone might be attributing to the county’s decline of reported overdoses, he said, though it’s too early to know for sure.

“Even people who are in really desperate states sometimes pull out of it,” he said. “We don’t want to give up on people just because they are in a tough situation.”

The county’s naloxone program started in July 2015, a few months before Clallam County became the first in the state to require overdose reporting.

The county reported 62 overdoses in 2016, six of which were fatal.

The stats show a steady decline in the number of overdoses throughout the year, with 20 overdoses in the first quarter of 2016, 17 in the second quarter, 14 in the third quarter and 11 in the fourth quarter.

Between 2011 and 2015, Clallam County had the second worst opioid overdose death rate in the state at a rate of 14.6 per 100,000, according to the state Department of Health.

The state’s average was 9.8 deaths per 100,000 people. Jefferson County fell below the average at 8 deaths per 100,000 people.

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Reporter Jesse Major can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 56250, or at jmajor@peninsuladailynews.com.