The state's first syringe exchange program will be launched in Mandan on Jan. 2. Custer Health will begin the Mandan Good Neighbor Project in an effort to reduce the spread of diseases, such as HIV and viral hepatitis infections, by providing sterile syringes and other injection equipment.
Custer Health held a meeting on Tuesday to introduce the program to the community. Several city leaders were in attendance, including Jim Neubauer, Mandan's city administrator, Mandan Fire Chief Steve Nardello, Mandan Police Chief Jason Ziegler and Deputy Chief Lori Flaten.
"We're just coming to get the information so if we're asked questions, we have some answers and so we know what's going on, we know the days of operations," Ziegler said.
Jodie Fetsch, the director of nursing at Custer Health, 403 Burlington St. S.E., is heading the program.
"We're seeing that rise in disease, and there are so many people that are suffering with hepatitis C and HIV, and, as a public health nurse, this is a problem we can help," Fetsch said.
The program is an extension project that was started in Moorhead, Minn., in January 2015 by reformed drug user Jeremy Kelly. Kelly, 43, said he has been clean for 11 years and started the storefront operation as a way to help drug users stay safe and not reuse dirty needles.
"I'm engaging with people out there who have never participated in any type of services. Never reached out to any other places that are around for them but they let me right in their front door," Kelly said during Tuesday's community meeting at Custer Health.
He looks forward to expanding the program to Fargo to make a bigger impact and devote more time and energy in helping the community.
Previously, this program was illegal in North Dakota until the passage of Senate Bill 2320 during the 2017 legislative session.
The program not only provides sterile syringes but offers community members an opportunity to educate themselves on disease prevention, HIV and hepatitis testing. It also provides information to treatment centers, referrals to substance abuse, medical, mental health and social services centers as well as training on how to use naloxone, the medication used to reverse an opioid overdose.
"We are here for the improvement of public health and the quality of life," said Keith Johnson, the administrator at Custer Health, adding that the program was a new direction for the health department, which he said has generally dealt with traditional health care needs and not behavioral health.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, people who inject drugs are five times as likely to enter treatment for substance use disorder and more likely to reduce or stop injecting when they use a syringe services program.
The CDC also noted that such programs reduce needlestick injuries, overdose deaths, the spread of disease and save health care dollars by preventing infections. The center also found that the estimated lifetime cost of someone living with HIV is more than $400,000.
Program participants can visit Custer Health's Mandan office from 1 to 4 p.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays and receive a biohazard bucket in which to keep used syringes. Participants must bring used syringes to receive new syringes. Participants will receive about 20 syringes a week along with other material.
For more information on the syringe exchange program, call 701-667-3370 or visit www.custerhealth.com.