Syringe exchange in Tampa saves lives by preventing overdoses and infections
TAMPA – By 12:30 p.m. they were running out of alcohol swabs. Cotton too. For months, they have been out of the containers used to safely dispose of needles.
This Monday in December, IDEA Exchange Tampa met near the University Mall. It was the same procedure every Monday and Friday, when the needle exchange program set up in the parking lot to deliver clean syringes to those in need.
Since its launch in January 2021, the program has collected nearly 86,000 used syringes and distributed nearly 83,900 new and sterile syringes. It saves lives by preventing overdoses and the spread of infectious diseases.
This is the second authorized needle exchange program in Florida. The first IDEA Exchange was launched in Miami’s Overtown neighborhood in 2016 as a pilot program. Needle exchanges became legal when Governor Ron DeSantis enacted the Elimination of Infectious Diseases Act in 2019. It allows county boards to authorize sterile needle and syringe exchange programs for patients. people who inject drugs with the primary goal of reducing overdoses and the spread of disease. also known as harm reduction.
The program reduces the risk of HIV and hepatitis C infections, lifelong illnesses that are costly to both patients and health systems, said Asa Oxner, director of the IDEA Exchange Tampa program and associate professor at the College of Medicine, Internal Medicine at the University of South Florida. It also reduces the risk of accidental overdoses through education, provides access to drug treatment when participants are ready, and dispenses Narcan, the life-saving drug in overdose.
For the first two months of the program, Jerren Creak, the former site supervisor, sat alone. No customers visited. Few of the volunteers helped. At the end of February, the first customer arrived. Turning 10 was a good day.
Now 30 clients is a slow day.
“We get more people in a day than we get in a week,” said Syringe Services Supervisor Micah Boyer. “Almost everyone has heard of us by word of mouth. “
Most new customers are brought in by those who have been to the site for help before.
IDEA Exchange Tampa operates another distribution site in Ybor City. The influx of people exchanging needles and grabbing Narcan indicates how far the opioid crisis is spreading in the Tampa Bay area.
Overdoses have increased locally and nationally as the pandemic induces stress and suffering. In 2020, Hillsborough, Pinellas and Pasco counties saw the number of deaths skyrocket. More than 7,500 Floridians died of drug overdoses last year, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
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Fentanyl, a potent synthetic opioid, is responsible for the majority of these deaths and is changing the demographics of the victims. The opioid epidemic – once highly concentrated in rural and white communities and largely driven by prescription pain relievers – is now devastating communities of color.
Health experts and researchers fear that overdose deaths in these communities will continue to rise in the years to come.
This Monday afternoon during the exchange, a man said he canceled at least seven overdoses with the Narcan he recovered from the program – and more than 20 in the past month, staff said.
The site has distributed over 1,200 doses of Naloxone so far this year. According to program monitoring, based on participant reports, at least 867 overdoses were reversed as a result.
“We hear every day that we save lives,” Boyer said. “It reduces the burden on emergency rooms, especially during the pandemic.”
But a problem of equal access persists. The population of those who use drugs is much more diverse than what the program achieves. But there isn’t enough funding to meet demand, Boyer said, and expand the program’s reach to communities of color.
In Tampa Bay’s eight counties, the number of blacks dying of drug-related causes has risen from 65 deaths in 2018 to 113 in 2019, according to the latest data available from the Florida Department of Health. That’s almost double in a single year.
Reaching black communities with needle exchange programs could save lives and reduce the spread of chronic disease as drug overdose rates skyrocket. But Boyer said that IDEA Exchange Tampa currently does not have the money or resources to adequately meet the needs of more diverse communities.
IDEA Exchange Tampa also provides medical care. He treats those who visit the site for injuries such as open wounds and cuts. He has also performed more than 280 tests for HIV and hepatitis C.
Florida leads the country for new HIV cases with the most diagnoses, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Almost 4,400 new infections were reported in 2019, the most recent data available. Hillsborough and Pinellas counties are listed among 48 “areas of concern” by the federal government.
About a quarter of exchange participants test positive for hepatitis C – at least once a day, said Creak, who heads the tests. By 1 p.m. on Monday, someone had already tested positive. The program partners with organizations like Metro Inclusive Health to get people who test positive to participate in medical treatment programs.
The program has seen four positive HIV tests in the year it is running. Two were in early December.
The Healthy St. Petersburg Foundation provides partial funding for Tampa Bay Times articles on equity. He does not select the story subjects and is not involved in reporting or editing.
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For more information
Here’s how to learn more about IDEA Exchange Tampa and contact the organization:
To call: 813-606-9378
E-mail: [email protected]