Rural Michigan County Gets First Syringe Program


A rural Michigan county gets its first syringe service program (SSP). It comes at a time when the state is reporting an increase in HIV diagnoses attributable to injection drug use. PHC provides sterile needles to people who inject drugs such as heroin to prevent the spread of disease through sharing needles.

On November 24, the Mid-Michigan District Health Board vote to approve an SSP. The district represents the counties of Montcalm, Clinton and Gratiot. The SSP would open first in Montcalm County, then later expand to Clinton and Gratiot if county officials are satisfied it is functioning well. Under Michigan law, syringes are considered illegal drug paraphernalia. But the distribution of sterile syringes as a public health intervention is legal, if authorized by a government agency.

Currently, the closest Montcalm County SSP residents can reach Ionia, which is over 35 km from its largest city, Greenville. The county will join Red Project, a Grand Rapids nonprofit that already operates syringe services statewide.

“The best practice when it comes to syringe access is to provide syringes on an as-needed basis,” said Red Project executive director Steve Alsum. Filtered. “So working with each client, talking with them about how often they inject, when they can take the program, how many people in their social network inject… tWe take this opportunity when we see a participant to provide him with as many syringes as he needs so that he can use a sterile syringe for each injection.

The Michigan State Department of Health recently reported that Montcalm County is experiencing an unusual increase in HIV diagnoses, linked to injection drug use.

Programs in some cities and states follow “one-to-one” guidelines, which they may be mandated to do. This means that only one syringe is given to each participant for each used syringe returned. The practice contradicts the scientific consensus—including CDC—On the best way to reduce blood borne diseases. Fortunately, Red Project gives customers as many as they need.

Red Project offers rapid HIV and hepatitis C testing in addition to syringe services. It will not actually operate the SSP in Montcalm County, but instead provide training and other support to the Department of Health as the department launches the program.

Michigan State Department of Health recently reported that Montcalm County is seeing an unusual increase in HIV diagnoses linked to injection drug use. At the same time, HIV diagnoses are on the decline for the entire state of Michigan.

There are no current data on HIV diagnoses in Montcalm County, but HIV prevalence has historically been relatively low. In 2019 the county had 54.7 HIV cases per 100,000 population. By comparison, Detroit has 713.3 per 100,000 population.

According to the data Provided to county council, Montcalm County paramedics also administer significantly less naloxone than the state average, even though opioid-related deaths are 1.7 times the state average. So far this year, 21 people in the county are believed to have died from an overdose. This would equate to 33 people per 100,000, which is significantly higher than the national death rate of 21.6 people per 100,000. in 2019.

It is not yet clear what other services the Montcalm County SSP will provide. Mid-Michigan District Health Department public information officer refused Filteredrequest for comments, other than indicating that it is too early to share details.

Alsum also pointed out that details of the new SSP were not yet finalized. But because the county has agreed to partner with his organization to train them, he suspects the services will closely resemble those currently offered by Red Project. He estimated that if all goes well, the program should be open as early as January 2022.


Photograph of Project Red in Grand Rapids Harm Reduction Services, via Facebook.


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