City health commissioner: Needle exchange numbers have tripled since spring

CINCINNATI -- Patricia Embry, who slept Sunday night on the concrete steps of First Lutheran Church, has lain down every night for the last 10 years with the addiction crouching over her.

When asked, she doesn't evade, excuse or equivocate: She has used marijuana, cocaine and opioids since losing her home, and she knows many other members of Cincinnati's homeless population do, too.

"I come from a long line of drugs," she said. "That's why I am out on the street."

According to the National Coalition for the Homeless, up to 64 percent of all homeless people in the United States could have a substance dependency issue like Embry's. As a result, homeless Cincinnatians such as Embry face an enormous risk of addiction, overdose, disease and death, and the number of Cincinnatians -- both those with homes and those without -- who die of overdoses each year is growing.

"Our problem is not improving," Dr. Jennifer Mooney told City Council Monday during a meeting focused on public health in the heroin crisis. "We have already surpassed 2016 numbers, and this is for fatal and non-fatal overdoses."

She had the data to back up her claim: 1,733 people have overdosed in Cincinnati since the beginning of 2017, compared to the 1676 who overdoses over the entirety of 2016. Of 2017's victims, 122 died. 

Interim Health Commissioner Marilyn Crumpton said participation in needle exchanges, which allow drug users to trade dirty, possible contaminated needles for clean ones with which to use drugs, has also tripled in Hamilton County over the past six months. More than 40,000 syringes are exchanged each month on a one-to-one basis, Crumpton said. This data comes from three City of Cincinnati needle exchange locations and one Middletown exchange.

Programs like the needle exchange are meant to prevent the spread of disease, but they cannot be the only line of defense. Crumpton and Mooney discovered that hepatitis A was prevalent among Cincinnati's most vulnerable residents, many of whom lack consistent access to places in which they can shower and wash their hands. 

Part of their proposal to fight hepatitis A and other transmissible diseases among drug users involves installing hand-washing stations and portable showers in public places -- including Washington Park. Embry said she would be grateful for those options.

"Everybody would be clean then," she said. "People would be more safe."

Click here to read WCPO's comprehensive coverage of heroin's hold on the Tri-State.

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