TAMPA — By 12:30 p.m., they’d run out of alcohol swabs. Cotton, too. For months, they’ve been out of the containers used to safely dispose of needles.
That Monday in December, IDEA Exchange Tampa gathered near University Mall. It was the same procedure every Monday and Friday, when the needle exchange program sets up in the parking lot to offer clean needles to those in need.
Since its launch in January 2021, the program has collected nearly 86,000 used syringes and distributed nearly 83,900 new, sterile syringes. It saves lives by preventing overdoses and the spread of infectious diseases.
It’s the second sanctioned needle exchange program in Florida. The first IDEA Exchange was launched in Miami’s Overtown area in 2016 as a pilot program. Needle exchanges became legal when Gov. Ron DeSantis signed the Infectious Disease Elimination Act into law in 2019. It allows county commissions to authorize sterile needle and syringe exchange programs for people who inject drugs with the primary goal of reducing overdoses and the spread of disease — also known as harm reduction.
The program reduces the chance of HIV and Hepatitis C infections, lifelong illnesses that are costly for both patients and health care systems, said IDEA Exchange Tampa program director Asa Oxner, an associate professor at the University of South Florida’s College of Medicine, Internal Medicine. It also reduces the chance of accidental overdoses through education, provides access to drug treatment when participants are ready and distributes Narcan — the life-saving overdose-reversal drug.
During the program’s first two months, Jerren Creak, the former site supervisor, sat alone. No clients visited. Few volunteers helped. At the end of February, the first client arrived. Getting 10 used to be a good day.
Now, 30 clients is a slow day.
“We’re getting more people in a day now than we were getting in a week,” said syringe services supervisor Micah Boyer. “Almost everyone heard about us through word of mouth.”
Most new clients are brought by those who have already been to the site for help.
IDEA Exchange Tampa runs another distribution site in Ybor City. The influx of people exchanging needles and grabbing Narcan signals how deep the opioid crisis runs in the Tampa Bay area.
Overdoses have surged locally and nationally as the pandemic induces stress and suffering. In 2020, Hillsborough, Pinellas and Pasco counties saw deaths soar. More than 7,500 Floridians died of drug overdoses last year, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
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Fentanyl, a potent synthetic opioid, drove the majority of those deaths and is shifting the demographics of who is falling victim. The opioid epidemic — once highly concentrated in rural, white communities and driven in large part by prescription painkillers — is now devastating communities of color.
Health experts and researchers fear overdose deaths in those communities will continue climbing for years to come.
That Monday afternoon at the exchange, one man said he reversed at least seven overdoses with the Narcan he’d picked up from the program — and more than 20 in the past month, staff said.
The site has handed out more than 1,200 doses of Naloxone so far this year. According to the program’s tracking, based on participant reporting, at least 867 overdoses have been reversed as a result.
“We hear every day that we’re saving lives,” Boyer said. “It’s reducing the burden on emergency rooms, especially in the pandemic.”
But an equal access issue persists. Although the program selected sites based on zip code overdoses rates, the population of those using drugs is much more diverse than those the program is reaching. There’s not enough funding to keep up with demand, Boyer said, and broaden the program’s reach into communities of color.
In Tampa Bay’s eight counties, the number of Black people who died of drug-related causes increased from 65 deaths in 2018 to 113 in 2019, according to the most recent Florida Department of Health data available. That’s nearly double in a single year.
Reaching Black communities with needle exchange programs could save lives and reduce the spread of lifelong illnesses as drug overdose rates skyrocket. And IDEA Exchange Tampa says it’s starting to make progress. The portion of clients of color using the services increased by 13 percent in the last quarter of 2021, said Oxner, the program director.
IDEA Exchange Tampa also provides medical care. It treats those who visit the site for wounds such as open sores and cuts. It also has completed over 280 screenings for HIV and Hepatitis C.
Florida led the nation in new HIV cases with the highest number of diagnoses, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data. Almost 4,400 new infections were reported in 2019, the most recent data available. Hillsborough and Pinellas counties are listed among 48 “areas of concern” by the federal government.
About a quarter of the exchange’s participants test positive for Hepatitis C — at least one per day, said Creak, who leads testing. By 1 p.m. that Monday, someone had already tested positive. The program partners with organizations like Metro Inclusive Health to get those who test positive into medical treatment programs.
The program has seen four positive HIV tests in the year it’s been running. Two were at the beginning of December.
The Foundation for a Healthy St. Petersburg provides partial funding for Tampa Bay Times stories on equity. It does not select story topics and is not involved in the reporting or editing.
For more information
Here’s how to find out more about IDEA Exchange Tampa and contact the organization:
Donate: The average cost is $1,500 per month in direct supplies for patients. Submit a donation at https://giving.usf.edu/ and use the account “Tampa Bay Street Medicine - IDEA Exchange #250408″