June Leffler Published

Doctors, Nurses Urge Gov. Justice to Veto Needle Exchange Regulations

More than 300 nurses, doctors, social workers and pastors urged the governor to veto Senate Bill 334. The legislation would regulate syringe service programs for the first time in West Virginia.

In a letter written by the state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, signees said the bill could “eradicate” harm reduction programs that help curb the spread of HIV and other blood-borne illnesses. The bill doesn’t shut down programs, but it requires all operators to get approval from local city councils and county commissioners.

The letter argues that syringe distribution has been so controversial that elected officials would be reluctant to approve any operation. The bill also requires participants show state IDs and limit the number of needles that could be distributed. Both measures could shut out some participants, the signees explained.

West Virginia legislators that voted in favor of the bill have said regulations are needed for these services, just like any healthcare operation. They argued that harm reduction programs need to be accountable to the communities they operate in, not just their program participants.

At this point, the governor has no intention of vetoing the bill. He said it is a good compromise.

“It prevents the problems we were having with needles all over the place,” Gov. Justice said at a virtual press briefing Monday. “But it still aids in helping those folks that we need to reach out and try to help and keep them safe too.”

State Health Officer Dr. Ayne Amjad said she will support the governor’s decision. “Our job at the state level is to follow the legislative ruling at this time,” she said.

She said the state will continue to work with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and local health departments to come up with a plan to address West Virginia’s multiple HIV outbreaks.

“We’ll be coming up with our plan and putting it forward,” Amjad said. “We’ll have more to follow.”

U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin recently sent a Congressional inquiry to the CDC about its findings that Kanawha County has the “most concerning” HIV outbreak.

The CDC responded in a letter Friday. It stated that since 2019, more than 50 new HIV cases among those who inject drugs had been documented. That contrasts from previous years where fewer than five cases were reported annually.

CDC officials said they had been working with the West Virginia Bureau of Public Health and local partners to understand the outbreak. “CDC stands ready to provide more support at the invitation of the state,” wrote Dr. Jonathan Mermin with the CDC.