After objections by city officials, state public health officials have rescinded their approval for a needle exchange program in Santa Ana – placing a local substance abuse clinic’s application back into “pending” status.
City of Santa Ana officials say the the California Dept. of Public Health alerted them to its reversal on Wednesday, in response to heavy pushback by City Manager Kristine Ridge and Police Chief David Valentin, both of whom called the program a public health and safety risk in a letter to CDPH.
The needle exchange program aims to prevent the transmission of HIV – and prevent overdose deaths by supplying naloxone and naloxone training during deliveries and pick-ups – amongst people struggling with substance abuse.
“This needle exchange threatens the health and safety of our children, families and neighborhoods,” said Mayor Valerie Amezcua in a news release earlier this week. “I am greatly disappointed that the state health department would override our local government authority to protect our community.”
It’s part of an increasing effort by officials in a predominantly working-class Latino community – Orange County’s largest – to push back on what’s been a years-long countywide trend of citing services for vulnerable populations in Santa Ana, which finds itself the seat of county government and host to the county jail as well as public health and social services.
As part of this effort, the city has in recent years moved to block homeless and mental health clinics, arguing that for too long they have been the county “dumping ground” for vulnerable people who at times come in from wealthier cities.
Earlier this year, the county Board of Supervisors voted to ask state officials to reconsider the needle exchange program in Santa Ana, those calls being led by Santa Ana’s County Supervisor, Vicente Sarmiento, himself a former mayor of the city.
“We are committed to meaningful engagement and would like to invite Santa Ana’s law enforcement officers to further engage and consult with CDPH on [the needle exchange] application,” wrote state public health officials in their Aug. 30 letter to the city, on the eve of National Overdose Awareness day.
In a news release on Wednesday, city officials wrote that past needle exchange programs have resulted in used hypodermic needles and syringes being discarded at public buildings, libraries, streets, sidewalks, residents’ lawns, parks and waterways.
“The provider did not properly collect or account for thousands of discarded syringes,” reads the city news release.
In response, the leader of the Harm Reduction Institute – the substance abuse clinic and advocacy organization which applied with the state to run the syringe program – has said her group has measures to account for discarded needles, and that they would collect used syringes while supplying people with new ones.
But the state hasn’t ruled the program out for good.
“We’re remaining hopeful that we’ll be authorized again,” said Carol Newark, the Harm Reduction Institute’s executive director, in a Thursday phone interview. “We’re also trying to prevent overdose deaths. And that’s really hard to do whenever you don’t have a syringe exchange program to bring people in.”
“The mayor says that the high rate of HIV transmission is not a good enough reason to have a needle exchange. And I don’t really know how to argue with that point, because the whole mission of our program is to prevent the spread of HIV.”
State officials in their letter invited city officials to further discuss the Harm Reduction Institute’s application.
City officials, meanwhile, have made their opposition clear.
“City officials remain concerned about any potential needle exchange program,” read the Santa Ana news release, adding officials “will continue to advocate for the safety of Santa Ana’s residents and neighborhoods.”