Used syringes are turning up on the streets in Moab. What should people do if and when they find one?
“Don’t mess with it and call somebody at the dispatch,” said Steven White, Grand County Sheriff, on Nov. 27. “We can get someone there to pick it up.”
That same day, Moab City Police officer Reuben Badger pulled a used hypodermic syringe out of a bush near the sidewalk on 100 North. Officer Badger noted that the needle on the syringe was covered with an orange cap.
A different hypodermic needle in the same bush was reported to police on Oct. 18. In the meantime, a Moab resident carried a used syringe to the Moab City Police Department that he said he found at the edge of his property. He asked to speak to an on-duty officer, and said that it wasn’t his first time finding a used syringe in the area.
Moab Police Chief Jim Winder has also found used syringes on the ground, and pointed to an off-road destination near U.S. Highway 191 as a place he has nicknamed “Junkie Point.”
“I mention this because that particular location suggests people traveling on highway 191 may see the turn-off and simply pull over and inject,” Winder said in an email on Nov. 8.
White, too, said he thinks the issue is tourism-based, but both Winder and White said there is a prevalence of locals who are injecting methamphetamine, heroin and other drugs.
Winder said law enforcement is in a “reactive mode.”
“When we find needles we collect them,” he said. “When we find people in possession we arrest them.”
It’s possible that that could change, Winder indicated, as he called the approach “neither sophisticated or in my opinion particularly effective but it is the option we have available.”
THE NEAREST SHARPS DROPBOX
White said the sheriff’s office does have a safe disposal dropbox for medication, but the dropbox does not accept syringes, or liquid medications.
Angie Settle, development director at the Moab Free Health Clinic, said the clinic does not provide a syringe dropbox.
“I don’t think there is a dropbox in Moab,” she said. “There might be some undercover ones.”
The Moab Regional Hospital is looking into ways for how patients can properly dispose of medically related items, said Laurie Peter, marketing, communications and development specialist, but said, “We do not have a needle deposit or exchange for the public.”
Reporting used syringes to law enforcement is one way to ensure that the materials can be disposed of safely.
The Southeast Utah Health Department has been working on other solutions to the issue.
A flier created by the health department titled “Safely Dispose of Used Needles,” gives instructions to put used syringes into a sharps container — if there isn’t one, make one.
“Use a plastic bottle that cannot be punctured or broken, such as a laundry detergent bottle or a plastic coffee container,” the flier states. “Keep the container closed and away from children and pets.”
Safe disposal dropbox locations for syringes listed on the flier are 100 or more miles from Moab: the Salt Lake City Library and Pioneer Park in the same area; the fire and police departments in Helper.
But when two counties within the Utah Department of Health’s southeastern district — Carbon and Emery — were identified by the Centers for Disease Control as being vulnerable for hepatitis and HIV outbreaks, health care workers were spurred into action.
PREVENTING AN OUTBREAK
“Our health district was singled-out by CDC for a hepatitis C and HIV outbreak if we didn’t get ahead of this and so we just started partnering with organizations,” said Debbie Marvidikas, the district’s health promotions director in Price.
Grand County, the third county comprising the Southeastern Utah Health Department, was not identified by the CDC as having the same risk associated with Carbon and Emery counties. Marvidikas thinks that’s because the two other counties have higher rates of opioid overdose deaths.
“We have 54 percent of the state’s overdose deaths so that puts us at a higher risk for being vulnerable for that outbreak,” she said.
As drug overdose rates have risen nationally, so too have reported cases of acute hepatitis C and HIV.
Acute hepatitis C, a viral infection that can be contracted through blood and contaminated surfaces, is known by health care workers to spread from person-to-person through sharing used syringes, similar to how HIV, a virus that attacks the immune system’s T cells, proliferates.
In a five-year period in Utah between 2011-15, reported rates of hepatitis C increased by 150 percent across the state, according to the CDC. A Utah Status Health Update report released in June showed the rate of hepatitis C in Grand County per 100,000 people is as high as Carbon, Emery and Salt Lake counties, but the report doesn’t state how many cases have been reported in each county.
In an effort to get ahead of any potential outbreak, Utah Governor Gary Herbert signed a harm reduction law, House Bill 308, on March 25, 2016, allowing for syringe exchange programs to open in the state.
Marvidikas said the health department in Carbon County contracted with One Voice Recovery, a nonprofit needle exchange organization, and opened a syringe program. So far this year, the program has collected 20,154 syringes. Marvidikas said at least two families from Grand County have visited the syringe exchange in Carbon County.
“Utah doesn’t have a very strong needle disposal plan,” she said. “Mostly what they are recommending is putting them in a plastic bottle and throwing them away. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want my babies picking them up. These two harm reduction organizations in Utah work on that. They will come down and cleanup your community and provide services.”
The harm reduction services provided by the partnership with One Voice Recovery can include community cleanups, establishing dropbox locations and providing education on drug misuse and recovery.
To form a similar partnership in Grand County, Marvidikas said cooperation would have to come from multiple agencies, including law enforcement. She said the health department met with the Carbon County attorney a few months ago to talk about creating identification for people involved in the syringe program.
“As a result of that, we have these little cards that those who are a part of the syringe service program carry with them,” she said. “That just evolved as something that was needed because of the paraphernalia law.”
Winder said he is aware of public awareness campaigns, needle dropboxes and exchange programs currently being implemented in other areas.
“Such programs have both operational and political considerations which must be understood and supported prior to implementation,” Winder said. “We at the Moab Police Department would be pleased and anxious to engage in any conversations and programs to address what is a very real and expanding problem.”
Residents encouraged to make their own dropboxes
“We at the Moab Police Department would be pleased and anxious to engage in any conversations and programs to address what is a very real and expanding problem.”