The Public Health Council in Springfield, Massachusetts, is set to vote February 28 on starting a needle exchange program. And for the first time in decades, advocates think it may well pass.
Springfield would be one of the last major cites in Massachusetts to allow a program where addicts could exchange dirty needles for clean ones, and get information on counseling and drug treatment.
Health Commissioner Helen Caulton-Harris has long advocated for needle exchange, starting when Springfield's AIDS rate first topped the state rankings.
The worsening opioid crisis has made it more urgent. But Caulton-Harris said the main reason the city might finally get needle exchange is because of a new state law saying a board of health can approve the program without city council support.
"I believe that syringe access services was always a public health issue that got politicized," she said.
Springfield Mayor Dominic Sarno, who previously voted against needle exchange when he was on the city council, has said he's more open to the idea now, as long as it includes more comprehensive addiction services.
At public hearing in January, Caulton-Harris said, more than a dozen people spoke out in favor of a needle exchange program in Springfield, and no one spoke against it.
If the health council approves, Caulton-Harris said, agencies will then bid on running the program -- and have to figure out where to locate it, among other sticky details.
Cheryl Zoll of Tapestry Health said her organization will most likely be among the bidders. Tapestry already provides syringe access in several other western Massachusetts cities, including Northampton, Holyoke and Greenfield.