DEER ISLE — The Opiate-Free Island Partnership, working with Health Equity Alliance, will begin operating a needle exchange for two hours on Thursday evenings at St. Brendan the Navigator Episcopal Church starting Feb. 25.
Opiate-Free Island received a certificate to operate the exchange from the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention on Tuesday, according to partnership co-chairman Charlie Osborn.
Osborn said the church has “generously volunteered their parish hall” for the effort.
The exchange will operate from 5 to 7 p.m. on Thursdays, he said.
Volunteers have been trained to run the exchange, which is referred to as a “syringe service program.”
“Syringe service programs allow people who use intravenous drugs to exchange used needles for clean ones legally, anonymously, without judgment and free,” said Osborn. “They help stop the spread of hepatitis C and HIV, increase access to NARCAN and fentanyl test strips and become trusted sources for referrals to treatment and recovery support.”
Syringe services are considered a cornerstone of harm reduction programs, Osborn said.
“Even with the substantial expansion of treatment and recovery support services across Maine in the last three years, ‘harm reduction’ programs are now more important than ever to help people stay alive until they are ready for treatment,” Osborn said.
“The closest syringe service program to Deer Isle is an hour away in Ellsworth, where 184,000 needles were exchanged in 2019,” said Osborn.
Having a local exchange will create more access to Deer Isle-Stonington residents.
Because of travel distances in rural Maine, groups of individuals frequently bundle requests for clean needles into a visit by a single person. That means many fewer individuals have access to the additional services syringe service programs offer. Research suggests that people who inject drugs are 5.5 times more likely to visit an SSP if they live within 10 miles.
“An SSP on Deer Isle can help additional people stay healthy while continuing to use IV drugs, and to get treatment when they are ready,” Osborn said.
Maine is experiencing a higher rate of overdose deaths because of the pandemic, according to Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention.
“The opioid epidemic has accelerated in Maine amid the isolation, anxiety, and depression associated with COVID-19,” Shah stated at the 2020 Maine Opioid Response Summit.