JEFFERSONVILLE — The Clark County needle exchange program is experiencing extraordinary success in syringe return rates already in 2019, with March seeing the highest percentage of returns to date.
Last month, the return rate was more than 90 percent, said Clark County Health Officer Dr. Eric Yazel.
“That’s one of the highest I’ve heard anywhere,” he said.
Since opening in January 2017, the Interchange on Akers Avenue in Jeffersonville has been providing clean syringes in exchange for used ones. Participants can also receive supplies, education and health and addiction treatment if desired, as well as hepatitis C and HIV testing.
The year started out with a return rate around 70 percent, which was already an upward trend for the program.
However, that number has continued to increase at a rapid pace as the year progresses.
In March alone, the program distributed 5,309 syringes. In return, they collected 4,296 from program members, and an additional 650 “community syringes.”
Those are ones returned from non-members of the syringe exchange, like family, Yazel said.
The month before, the program distributed 4,515 syringes and collected a total of 3,636 from members and 370 from the community.
There is no one nationwide organization that tracks needle return-rate data, the physician said.
“The averages are all over the place,” Yazel said, stating he’s seen “as high as 112 percent, as low as 10 percent.”
He added, “I don't know that a national average is out there. Plus, a lot of places have drop-off points, which allow people to return any syringes, not just those at exchanges.”
Taking all of that into account, Yazel said, “Any return rate over 70 percent at a place not fudging their numbers is considered excellent.”
And, he believes Clark County’s program’s return rate is "exceptional."
The organizations who report the highest return rates are those who have community return boxes — and that approach is in the health department’s plans, Yazel said.
“We will probably do that soon, but it’s a double-edge sword,” he said. “It’s nice to be able to see what percent of our syringes are brought back. But, with our current model, we probably can get our return rate over 100 percent, so we are leading to a net decrease in syringes in the county.”
All these indicators, he said, point to one simple truth: The program is gaining traction and making a difference.
Clark County Commissioners president Jack Coffman said he felt "pleasantly surprised" when he heard the return rate was over 93 percent in March.
Coffman said the program was started in Clark County with some apprehension from local officials and law enforcement. "Honestly, we weren't too sure about putting it into place and we had our doubts," Coffman said.
However, with Scott County running such a program in the next county over, Clark County needed to get on board, he said. "We needed to help them and us, too," he said.
Yazel is also pleased with his team's efforts with the initiative. He especially gave credit to the program’s lead, Brian Cauley, for creating a personalized needle-exchange service that shows participants they matter through personalized care, honest dialogue and continuous relationship building.
Additionally, Cauley tracks a variety of data points in his work. Through his meticulous work, Yazel said, the health department is gaining a clearer picture of who they are serving.
Yazel reported the program’s success keeps on growing, with an overall 16 percent increase in participants since the first of January. All told, the program has had 2,122 total visits from 581 active members.
In March, the program served 152 total clients. They saw 128 in February and 121 in January.
Of those participants, an overwhelming majority of participants self-identified as being White, Non-Hispanic.
In March, 148 of the participants fell into that category. In February, the number was 124; in January, it was 118.
In both February and March, only four identified as “other.” In January, it was two.
There were zero African-American, Native American and Hispanic participants in February and March. In January, one participant identified as African-American; none identified as being Native American or Hispanic.
The majority of the program’s clients range in age from 30 to 39. The second-highest age range is 40 to 49, followed by those who are 20 to 29.
Another key statistic is that most members live with family or rent their own home, Yazel said, with 45 percent of members say they live with friends or family; 27 percent are renting homes and 16 percent say they are homeless.
Only 6 percent own homes and 2 percent are living in shelters/halfway houses. The remaining 4 percent did not specify their housing arrangements.
Additionally, the program is helping connect dots to additional help for many of their participants, Yazel said. Overall, he said the program has been able to make:
• 909 referrals for treatment
• 470 referrals for medical care
• 381 referrals for housing assistance
• 347 referrals for food assistance
• 682 other well-being referrals
“Additionally, 206 doses of Narcan have been distributed among mostly users,” he said.
Finally, they have also been able to test for two critical illnesses connected with sharing needles.
Overall,101 participants have tested for Hepatitis C with 36 positives, and 169 have tested for HIV with three positive tests.
"We've come a long way with this program, and we still have more we are going to working on," Yazel said. "Everybody in the health department is chipping in to make a difference in this work ... It's a tremendously dedicated team of people who care."