Clark County Commissioners

Clark County Commissioners President Jack Coffman asks a question during Thursday’s commissioners meeting. The body voted 3-0 to extend the county’s needle exchange program until 2022.

JEFFERSONVILLE — Since 2018, Clark County’s syringe exchange program has saved millions of dollars in estimated medical costs through early treatment of diseases while also helping drug users safely dispose of needles, Dr. Eric Yazel said Thursday.

Yazel, who is the county’s health officer, provided the Clark County Commissioners with several statistics related to the program before asking that it be extended for another two years. After his presentation, the commissioners unanimously agreed to continue the program through July 2022.

One of the key percentages for the effort is the needle return rate. The program saw a return rate of 69% in 2018, 78% in 2019 and 82% so far this year, Yazel said.

“That’s well above state levels,” he said.

Users who obtain needles through a syringe exchange program are four times as likely to dispose of them in a safe manner, Yazel continued.

“That’s a big deal for us,” he said.

Another component of the program is testing participants for diseases such as HIV and hepatitis C. Yazel said the program has led to “tons of testing” that has saved medical costs for dealing with a spread of the diseases.

“Every case we diagnose early, there is very likely to prevent one community transmission,” he said.

The Indiana General Assembly provided a one-year extension of needle exchange programs during the 2020 session. Lawmakers agreed to extend the program through July 1, 2022.

State Rep. Ed Clere, R-New Albany, was one of the key figures in pushing to keep the program as some officials have argued that needle exchanges enable drug users.

“No one is suggesting injecting opioids is safe but using clean needles reduces the risk associated with injection,” Clere told TheStateHouseFile earlier this month. “Put simply, it makes an unsafe activity safer.”

In Clark County, Yazel said the program has also allowed for instruction on how to use Narcan — an emergency treatment for suspected opioid overdoses. So far this year, 46 people have been trained for Narcan use through the Clark County Health Department’s needle exchange program.

But the news isn’t all positive. Since the pandemic spiked in April, drug overdoses have been on the rise locally. Clark County saw a 300% increase in overdoses in May after a jump in April and preceding another rise in June.

“May was actually the highest number we’ve had since we’ve been keeping those statistics,” Yazel said of the 62 overdoses reported to the health department that month.

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