Alachua County syringe exchange waits for funds

Alachua County’s syringe exchange program currently waits for funding to begin implementation at local organizations like GRACE Marketplace, UF’s Mobile Outreach Clinic and Meridian Behavioral Health Services.

The Alachua County Board of County Commissioners discussed the program at Tuesday’s commission meeting.

The county finalized its partnership with WellFlorida in November 2021 for the service, just over two years after Florida Legislature passed a bill allowing syringe exchange programs.

However, legislation prohibits any state, county or city funds from financing such programs, leaving the county’s program dependent on federal funds or donations.

Cailin Lewis, HIV/AIDS program director at WellFlorida, said the program applied for a grant through the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). The 25 awardees will be announced in May, but Lewis said the organization is already looking at other options with so few slots available .

If WellFlorida fails to win the grant, it will apply for more until it can run the program. But the exchange program could begin operations by September if it receives the funds.

Lewis said the integrated model WellFlorida plans to use for the program will allow for faster rollout.

“We chose this model because it leverages existing partnerships and resources, and it also allows us to get the program up and running as quickly as possible because these entities already exist,” Lewis said to the commission.

The syringe exchange program will partner with established organizations already in Alachua County to host and execute the program. WellFlorida currently has six partners—GRACE Pharmacy, UF Mobile Outreach Clinics and Street Medicine Team, Meridian Behavioral Healthcare, Equal Access Clinic and Helping Hands.

When participants in the program visit these sites, they can exchange syringes on a 1-to-1 basis. Lewis said this encourages people to hold onto syringes and not leave them in public places.

She said Florida’s laws focus on disease control. So all sites will administer HIV and Hepatitis C tests at regular intervals so long as participants keep coming back.

The program will be completely anonymous and sites will work to connect participants with local resources. A participant who needs housing could be referred to GRACE Marketplace or someone testing positive for HIV could get connected with the Florida Department of Health in Alachua County.

Lewis said people who use the syringe exchange programs are five times more likely to enroll in drug treatment programs.

Florida law also requires supplying narcan kits and reporting on how many syringes go out, come in and are properly disposed of.

WellFlorida is looking for an employee to fill the role of program coordinator, a consistent point of contact for the program. The coordinator will organize services with the program partners, increase public awareness and ensure all the property tracking is done.

Once the program starts, Lewis said WellFlorida will hold quarterly updates with stakeholders and partners to adjust as needed.

Commissioner Mary Alford asked if the partner programs will be able to accept any substances program visitors may want to get rid of before entering rehab and can they offer pregnancy tests.

Lewis said the partner programs should be able to handle both services, and WellHealth could look to add it.

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