A syringe exchange program that has been operating in Sandwich for several months was criticized last week after a resident claimed the service could bring more crime and drug use to town.
The mobile outreach van, which is part of an opioid use prevention program funded by the National Institute of Health, offers syringe exchange services and naloxone distribution in Sandwich three days a week to assist residents in recovery.
On October 18, the Sandwich Board of Health voted in support of the services, provided by the AIDS Support Group of Cape Cod, or ASGCC. The town support helped ASGCC receive additional state funding for added resources.
But some residents are concerned with the location of the van, which parks in Canterbury Plaza, and the nature of the services provided, said Eileen Starrs during the selectmen’s meeting last Thursday, January 6.
“I am not sure if any of the board members are aware of it but there has been a needle exchange program happening in town since May of 2021,” Ms. Starrs said. “I have spoken with many businesses there, and they did not even know this was going on.”
The mobile outreach van, which is advertised as being parked in the Sandwich Food Pantry parking lot, is not affiliated with the food pantry, said director Gigi Ridgley.
“I just want the pantry absolved of any connection with these people. I called the owner of the parking lot and he was very upset,” Ms. Ridgley said. “I understand it’s a necessary thing and I think it’s wonderful that they do it but they don’t need to do it in my parking lot. It doesn’t look good for us or other businesses.”
On January 8, the Sandwich Food Pantry posted on Facebook, explaining they were not affiliated with the mobile van after a reporter from the Cape Cod Times was questioning local businesses in the area. Their post received many comments from people condemning the chosen location and suggesting alternatives, like the town’s new public safety complex or the urgent care center on Jan Sebastian Drive.
But a few felt the location was a great spot because of its proximity to public transit and local shops.
“I think we’re all aware that certain folks just have a “not in my backyard” opinion, which is all well and good until someone they love needs life-saving harm reduction,” wrote Nic Tompkins-Hughes.
The decision to park the mobile outreach van in Canterbury Plaza was not made by town officials.
Additionally, Ms. Starrs filed an open meeting law violation against the board of health which she said failed to appropriately advise residents a vote would be taken to support the van’s services, she said.
“My observation over many years and again, no judgment or opinion, is that when folks don’t like the outcome of something that happened, an open meeting law complaint gets filed because nobody saw the posting,” said Selectman David Sampson during the meeting.
Because an open meeting law complaint was filed, the board would not discuss the matter further.
“If it’s deemed that there was a violation of the open meeting law, then the board would have to re-advertise to correct the opening meeting law violation,” said public health director David Mason. “The vote was not to allow the program; it was to support the program. That program can occur in town; it doesn’t require public input or permission.”
However, the selectmen said they were unaware of the program despite Mr. Mason’s claims that the HEALing community studies program, which selected Sandwich to participate in the study based on the disproportionately higher number of opioid-related overdoses in recent years, has come before the selectmen previously.
“Many people in town feel this program is inappropriate,” Ms. Starrs continued. “It’s not that we don’t have empathy for addicts but they can get these services in abundance in Hyannis. There isn’t a need to invite people who could potentially be dangerous into town. Drug addiction and crime go hand-in-hand and the risk of harm to residents outweighs any potential help to just a few.”
The mobile outreach van services Bourne and Falmouth and has offices in Provincetown, Hyannis and Martha’s Vineyard, an ASGCC representative said. Bringing the services directly to Sandwich eliminates transportation and cost concerns, rendering treatment and testing more accessible to those who need the services, the representative said.
“This is not some random type of issue that just came up. This has been in the works as part of a program for a while now and this group was one of the partners of the HEALing communities study, which goes back as far as 2019,” Mr. Mason said.
The opioid overdose rate in Sandwich has fluctuated between two and six deaths per year between 2015 and 2020 and saw a 33 percent increase in opioid-related emergency medical incidents, unrelated to deaths, between January and June of 2021 compared to 2020, which saw 23, and 2019, which saw 24, according to data provided by ASGCC. This shows there may be an increasing trend in Sandwich.
Following this increase, both Bourne and Sandwich were selected for the HEALing communities study, which is a state-funded program that aims to reduce the number of opioid-related deaths.
In addition to syringe exchange services and naloxone distribution, the mobile van offers distribution and collection of sterile syringes, disposal of sharps, education on proper vein and wound care, overdose prevention and naloxone distribution education, the distribution of fentanyl test strips, financial and housing resources, transportation, outpatient and primary referrals, sexually transmitted infection testing and mental health services, said Dan Gates, ASCGG’s president and chief executive officer.
“Our services are successful because we meet people where they are at, free of stigma or agenda,” Mr. Gates said. “Our mission is to save lives through prevention, education and life-sustaining services that address public health crises to build healthy communities across the Cape and islands.”