North Dakota’s 1st needle program working to build trust

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — Staffers at North Dakota’s first needle exchange program say it will take time to build trust with the drug users they hope to serve.

Custer Health in Mandan enrolled four people during the first few weeks of the Good Neighbor Project, which launched Jan. 16 and aims to reduce rates of HIV and Hepatitis C among intravenous drug users by providing access to sterile syringes and information.

About 10 people stopped by but left after spending a few minutes in the waiting room, Custer Health nursing director Jodie Fetsch said. She said many of them are worried about a police presence, the Bismarck Tribune reported.

“I think we’re going to have to build trust,” Fetsch said. “It’s just going to take a while for them to get used to us treating them anonymously and not calling the police.”

People who enroll in the Good Neighbor Project are tracked by identification numbers, not their names, and given an ID card to present each time they visit. Fetsch said Custer Health doesn’t inform parole and probation officers that a person is participating in the program.

Individuals age 18 and older are eligible for as many as 20 free syringes each week. They are required to return dirty syringes to a biohazard bucket before receiving new ones. Participants also can receive one cooking kit each week, which contains sterile items to prevent the spread of disease.

North Dakota had a 36 percent increase in Hepatitis C cases from 2013 to 2017, with 1,112 cases reported in 2017, according to preliminary figures from the state Department of Health. Among cases involving people 35 and younger, 85 percent reported intravenous drug use.