Numbers show more than 226,000 needles from KCHD have not been returned

According to data from the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department, the rate of return for the needle exchange program is 65 percent. (WCHS/WVAH)

As the future of the needle exchange program at the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department is in jeopardy, Eyewitness News is looking in to the numbers when it comes to needles coming in and being given out through the controversial program.

Eyewitness News filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the health department, asking for raw data that shows the breakdown of services since the harm reduction program started in December 2015.

According to the information provided by the health department, since March 8, 651,428 needles have been handed out and 424,640 needles have been returned - an actual return rate of about 65 percent.

The health department's records show that 226,788 needles have not been returned to the facility since the program started.

In recent interviews and in public meetings, health officials have said the rate of return was 88 percent but clarified at a board meeting held on Thursday that the number is among returning patients. The number only includes the people who are actually "exchanging" needles, coming in with dirty ones, to get clean ones.

It doesn't include the number of people who come at one time only to get a fresh batch of needles and who never bring them back.

"The biggest issues were brought to our attention. It's syringe litter in the community. So every syringe that's in the community is trying to be linked to the harm reduction program, the needle exchange program," KCHD Prevention Wellness DirectorTina Ramirez said after the meeting on Thursday.

The health department announced last week that it would be initiating new guidelines for its harm reduction program. Clients must now show up in person to receive syringes.

In the past, they were able to pick up clean needles for others. Clients will now be required to show identification. These are the first changes made since an internal review of the program was ordered by the Kanawha-Charleston Board of Health.

On Monday, Charleston City Council will vote on whether or not to make possession of needles illegal again in city limits.

If council members decide to do so, the move would effectively end the needle exchange program.

Charleston Mayor Danny Jones and Police Chief Steve Cooper have spoken out against the program. They say that discarded needles being found at various places around the city, including playgrounds, restaurants and parking lots, are putting city workers and the general public in danger.

"What happens is, 400 or so per week descend upon Lee Street and Clendenin. Right across from the Town Center, near the Transit Mall, across from the new Civic Center and they get their needles. And the drug dealers know when needle exchange day is. It's a big money day for them," Cooper said in a recent interview.

"We've had 14 city employees poked in the last three years. Since 2013, we've had 14 city employees who have been poked with dirty needles and many of them are still under medical supervision," Cooper said.

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