Marion County health officials poised to declare public health emergency in response to drug crisis

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(Photo by Jim Davis/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

INDIANAPOLIS – Marion County health officials are on the verge of declaring a public health emergency in response to the growing drug crisis, potentially setting the stage for a controversial debate on whether to begin a needle exchange program in the state’s largest city.

Health officials anticipate 2017 will see another spike in the total number of drug overdose deaths in Marion County as compared to recent years.

“If the numbers look like what we think they’re going to be, then we will definitely declare an emergency for Marion County,” said Dr. Virginia Caine, director of the Marion County Public Health Department.

Caine has been tracking the trend alongside the increase in the number of residents with HIV and Hepatitis C linked to drug use.

Data from the health department shows overdose ambulance runs have tripled between 2011-2016, Hepatitis C cases have seen a four-fold increase between 2013-2016 and in 2016 alone the county saw 275 overdose deaths.

Caine acknowledges the debate on whether to begin a syringe exchange program will be controversial and a potential tough sell.

“Yes, let’s be honest and frank,” she said. “I think it will be.”

The city-county council would need to give final approval, alongside Indianapolis Mayor Joe Hogsett.

“The Marion County Health Department has been working with community partners and public safety officials to assess what new policies should be considered to address the ongoing opioid crisis in Indianapolis,” Hogsett said in a prepared statement. “I anticipate that these local leaders will present their findings to the city-county council – including a recommendation regarding the statewide discussion on the need and efficacy of needle exchange programs.”

Hogestt wouldn’t say whether he supports the idea.

Nine Indiana counties have set up needle exchange programs, but in the past year officials in Lawrence and Madison counties quit or suspended their programs after backlash and problems.

“We’ve had two children under the age of five who have been stuck with heroin needles,” Rodney Cummings said earlier this year, Madison County prosecutor.

In Marion County, health officials have already started exploring options including a mobile outreach targeting neighborhoods with high overdose rates alongside a storefront-type operation to exchange needles.

“I want to prevent the HIV and Hepatitis C,” Caine said. “But at the other side of the coin, can I reach these IV drug users and get them into a drug treatment program?”

Caine said she will make her final decision on a public health emergency in early 2018 after complete 2017 data is in her hands to analyze.

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