|NovaSalud is based in this building at 2946 Sleepy Hollow Road.|
The needle exchange program would save lives, as dirty needles lead to the spread of HIV and hepatitis A, B, and C, says Dr. Rene Najera, an epidemiologist with the Health Department.
The exchange program would be run by NovaSalud, a health clinic in Seven Corners that conducts HIV and STD testing, among other services.
NovaSalud received a grant from an anonymous donor to develop the needle exchange program. The Health Department would help monitor and evaluate the program and provide accountability.
Najera and his staff have been reaching out to the public to explain the program at community meetings.
The next meeting will be March 17, 7-8:30 p.m. at the James Lee Community Center, 2855 Annandale Road, Falls Church.
The meetings are not just for drug users, Najera says. He would like to hear from community members who oppose a needle exchange program and understand their objections to a program.
“There have been more deaths in Virginia and Fairfax County from opioid overdoses than traffic accidents over the past five years,” Najera says.
In Fairfax County, there are about 100 overdose deaths a year. About half are from heroin, with or without fentanyl, and the rest are from the misuse of opioids.
People who come to SaludNova for the needle exchange program would receive counseling, other health services, help finding a job, and naloxone, a medication used to reverse an overdose.
In some cases, drug users would build relationships with healthcare providers and eventually seek treatment, Najera says.
That’s happening in Richmond and Roanoke, he says, where needle exchange programs had 292 participants, resulting in 48,000 needles exchanged over the past 18 months.
Najera predicts the program at NovaSalud will start slowly this summer and eventually grow to the point where 50 to 100 people will regularly drop by to exchange needles.
Reducing the number of addicts contributes to healthier communities, he says, as drug users are more susceptible to blood-borne communicable diseases like HIV and hepatitis, which could spread among the wider population. And when dirty needles are turned in, they don’t end up in the environment.
In a community in Indiana, Najera notes, there was an “explosive epidemic” of HIV when the area was flooded with heroin and Vice President Mike Pence, who was then governor of Indiana, refused to authorize a needle exchange program on religious grounds. That health crisis didn’t end until Pence finally backed down.
The Fairfax County Police Department supports the needle exchange program in Seven Corners, Najera says. The next steps are more community dialogues and, he hopes, a green light from the Board of Supervisors.