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No questions asked: Syringe exchange program sees danger of SLO County's opioid abuse problem firsthand

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The woman in the car was young, between 23 and 24. She’d overdosed on some kind of opiate drug and was barely conscious. Alice Bodlak, a registered nurse, had seen this before and knew what to do. But even though the woman was on the verge of dying, Bodlak said she still tried to prevent her from administering an anti-overdose drug.

“She had lost custody of her child and was homeless,” Bodlak said. “Her life sucked. … She was in emotional, psychological, and probably physical pain.”

A SAFE SPACE :  Visits and exchanges at SLO County’s lone syringe exchange program continue to grow, according to a recent report. - GRAPHIC COURTESY OF SLO COUNTY SYRINGE EXCHAGE PROGRAM
  • GRAPHIC COURTESY OF SLO COUNTY SYRINGE EXCHAGE PROGRAM
  • A SAFE SPACE : Visits and exchanges at SLO County’s lone syringe exchange program continue to grow, according to a recent report.

The woman lived. She was lucky, Bodlak said. The other passengers in the car had no idea that they happened to drive into the SLO County Public Health Department’s parking lot on Johnson Avenue on a Wednesday night. It just happened to be where the county’s sole syringe exchange program operated.

“If those people had driven into the parking lot on any other night of the week, no one would have been there to help them,” said Bodlak, a public health nurse who volunteers with the program.

The needle exchange program has been operating in SLO since 2006. According to data in a Dec. 13 report on the program submitted to the SLO County Board of Supervisors, the program exchanged or collected more than 160,000 syringes during its 2015-2016 program year, the highest of any year since it began operating.

SLO County’s syringe exchange program is one of 37 in California and is manned by volunteers. The program is run by SLO Bangers, a nonprofit group. The program, which operates out of the public health building on Wednesdays between 5:30 and 7:30 p.m., allows individuals to safely dispose of their needles, no questions asked, and exchange them for kits that contain clean needles and, more recently, doses of Naloxone—the anti-opiate overdose drug. The site also provides information and brochures on drug treatment options and onsite testing for HIV and Hepatitis C.

The exchange serves all types of individuals, said Bodlak, who spoke about the program at a meeting of the SLO County Opioid Safety Coalition in October.

“I’ve seen people drive up in shiny cars with Cal Poly gear on,” she said. “It’s not just the poor.”

According to the report, the program saw 1,427 total visits from 487 unique clients during the 2015-2016 program year. While the number of unique clients was slightly lower than the 497 in the 2014-2015 program year, the number of total visits increased by an estimated 30 percent. 

“This finding indicates that the program participants are coming more often and consistently, which may indicate a higher frequency of intravenous drug use,” the report stated. The report also noted that in each year of the program, slightly more syringes were collected than were dispersed, indicating that fewer used needles may be in circulation thanks to the program.

According to the report, the increased number of visits and exchanges could be a promising sign that the program is gaining the trust of the community and is being accessed regularly. Last year, the program implemented a new policy that allowed some participants to exchange used syringes for new ones on behalf of individuals who can’t make it to the SLO city location themselves.

“It’s a very effective way to be able to cover more people with limited hours and a fixed site,” the report noted.

In the last several years, the syringe exchange program has served as one of the front lines in the battle against an alarming rise of opiate drug abuse and addiction. According to data from the coalition, the number of opioid-related deaths in SLO County climbed from 15 in 2006 to 36 in 2015, a 41.6 percent increase. Opioid-related emergency room visits also spiked by 58.5 percent for the same period of time. Admissions to drug and alcohol programs for opiate and heroin abuse have also been on the rise in the county.

“This is real. This is very real,” SLO County Health Officer Dr. Penny Borenstein told the members at the October coalition meeting. “These are our residents. These are our loved ones.”

The syringe exchange program, which participates in the coalition, is no stranger to the noticeable increase of overdoses, which is why it has been providing Naloxone. According to data the program collected, 51 percent of the exchange’s participants said they experienced an overdose; 70 percent of the Naloxone kits the program handed out were used successfully.

“That means they are saving lives,” Lois Petty, the site manager for the syringe exchange program, told the coalition in October. “Fifty-three people are alive because of this.”

Speaking to New Times Dec. 9, Borenstein said she expected the program to maintain “at least its current level” of service continuing into next year. 

Staff Writer Chris McGuinness can be reached at cmcguinness@newtimesslo.com, or on Twitter at @CWMcGuinness. 

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