LARGO — Pinellas County commissioners voted unanimously Jan. 26 to approve an ordinance that allows for a countywide syringe exchange program.
The ordinance includes program definitions, requirements and operational guidelines that comply with the statewide Infectious Disease Elimination Act program. The program cannot be paid for using state, county or municipal funds, so it has to rely on grant money and donations from private sources.
The Florida Legislature approved the IDEA program in 2016 and it went into effect statewide on July 1, 2019. It authorizes counties to establish programs for sterile syringe exchange to prevent and eliminate infectious disease, including viral hepatitis, Aids and HIV.
County commissioners discussed the program on Aug. 11, 2020, and Gayle Guidash, assistant director at the county Health Department, explained the benefits of the program. However, commissioners declined to act. The consensus had been to send it back to staff for more work.
Guidash had talked about the success of a five-year pilot syringe program in Miami-Dade County to help prevent the spread of blood-borne diseases. The program, which allows a one-for-one exchange of a dirty needle for a clean one, has shown success in Miami-Dade.
The program also provides free tests for HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) and HCV (hepatitis C). Guidash said testing is important to help provide treatment and prevent the spread. Participants also have access to educational materials and counseling or referrals.
In addition, the program dispenses naloxone kits, and has resulted in fewer opioid deaths in Miami-Dade County. Naloxone is a medication designed to rapidly reverse an opioid overdose.
Guidash said more than 600 HIV tests and HCV tests were given between Dec. 1, 2016 and 2018, and 2,871 boxes of naloxone were distributed between March 2017 and January 2020. Opioid deaths in Miami-Dade County decreased from 305 in 2017 to 213 in 2018.
To establish the program in Pinellas, commissioners needed to pass an ordinance establishing the program and then enter into an agreement with the Department of Health. DOH’s experts will provide advice and recommendations on operation of the program. The final step is to designate an entity to operate the program. That entity could be a hospital, health care clinic, medical school, licensed addictions receiving facility or a HIV/AIDS service organization.
In August, Sheriff Bob Gualtieri talked about some of the issues with the draft ordinance. He was concerned that there are important measures left out. There was also a discussion about whether the exchange should be a brick and mortar place only or if a mobile unit would be acceptable. The ordinance passed Jan. 26 calls for the exchange to be in a fixed location and the operator must be under contract with the county.
Suzette Porter is TBN’s Pinellas County editor. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.