By Brendan Pauley
WORCESTER- The Worcester City Council voted 9-1 in favor of lifting the moratorium on needle exchanges in the city on Tuesday following last week’s presentation by Dr. Matilde Castiel where she admonished the council to adopt a more progressive means of fighting the opiate epidemic.
The public comments before the council’s vote illustrated the public’s concern for the opiate epidemic and how the city intends to combat it.
Of those who spoke, one was against the measure. William Breault, chair of the Main South Alliance for Public Safety, expressed doubts regarding the proposed exchange’s efficacy and whether the public had been properly informed on the issue
“The cowards who call themselves servants of the people need to hear from the good people of Worcester,” he said, “We are not willing to wave the white flag of surrender to drug addicts.”
His claim that a needle exchange would promote drug use and negatively affect the community were opposed by the next 15 people who spoke on the issue, from former mayor and city councilor Joseph O’Brien to outreach workers, who thought an exchange would provide the city with a valuable tool to fight addiction.
Richard Gonzalez, an HIV positive pastor in recovery, stated that a needle exchange would give healthcare workers a valuable point of contact.
“When you reach out to addicts it’s a time to tell them that they can get clean – it’s not just giving a needle – it’s an opportunity for outreach,” he said, “CVS doesn’t ask them if they need help when they’re buying needles over the counter”
Dr. Thomas Stapka, Assistant Professor of Public Health and Community Medicine at Tufts University School of Medicine, took a more clinical approach in voicing his support, citing dozens of studies and his professional experiences as an epidemiologist as evidence that needle exchanges are an effective means of curbing the spread of HIV and Hepatitis C – something he said Worcester needs.
“Some of the needle exchanges I work with have over a 100% return rate, they’re getting more needles back than they’re giving out,” he said, adding “Worcester shows up as a hotspot, a statistically significant hotspot where there are clusters of elevated rates of HIV and Hepatitis C.”
City councilor Konstantina Lukes voiced doubts as to the practicality of a needle exchange program, agreeing with Main South Alliance for Public Safety chair Breault that the issue had not been sufficiently debated by members of the public. She was absent when votes were cast, however, leaving councilor Gaffney, who opposed the program based on what he considered the failure of over-the-counter needles, as the council’s lone dissenting voice.