Health department offers free needles

Pilot program aims to curb spread of disease

District Health Department No. 2 has started a pilot program to provide free syringe access and disposal in an effort to reduce the spread of disease in the community.

Covering Alcona, Iosco, Oscoda, and Ogemaw counties, District Health Department No. 2 provides a variety of services to improve health and safety in the community. Clinics in Harrisville, Tawas, and Mio all provide health-related services.

In an effort to address a growing number of opioid addictions and some of the health effects of intravenous drug use, a Syringe Service Program was implemented in April. Known as an SSP, this program provides completely free and anonymous syringe access and disposal. The syringe services are currently provided at the West Branch clinic, with future potential to serve other counties in the jurisdiction of DHD No. 2.

The SSP at the West Branch location happens from 3:30 to 4:30 p.m. every Thursday. It is free, anonymous and always confidential. Anyone can come in to obtain sterile needles, syringes and other supplies. The clinic will provide sharps containers upon request and, once returned, they will be disposed of properly, no charge or questions asked. During the clinic hours, they also provide those who come in with education about overdose prevention and safer injection practices, as well as referrals to substance-use disorder programs and community services such as mental health.

In addition, they provide rapid HIV testing in under 20 minutes and information about HIV care. The clinic locations also provide educational resources and services to help prevent HIV, STD’s and viral hepatitis. The clinics offer anyone interested with counseling, condoms, and vaccinations.

Some community members have expressed confusion and concern over the idea of a Syringe Service Program, but officials at the DHD No.2 have been working to provide information and awareness to the community about how an SSP can help keep the community safer. There is information available on their website and infographics that summarize the benefits of an SSP.

The main objective of the program is to prevent the spread of disease through the use of unclean needles. Not only does proper disposal and providing clean needles help prevent users from contracting and spreading disease, it also helps prevent needlestick injuries from first responders and those that may be injured by accidentally picking up littered needles.

While this is currently a pilot program, other Michigan communities have benefited from the effects of SSPs. The Michigan Department of Health and Human services says that, during 2017, nearly 8,000 clients were served and more than 672,000 were clean needles distributed through SSPs around the state. The department also said 24 percent of SSP clients referred to substance abuse treatment received treatment.

As a registered nurse and public health coordinator for DHD No 2., Heather Villarreal feels the program provides the means to help those in the community struggling with addiction when they have nowhere else to turn. She said it will take time to build a rapport with the community, but she stresses that it is free and completely confidential and no one will be turned away.

“We are giving people the tools and the knowledge to make the smartest possible choices in their situation,” Villarreal said.

For more information or to request help for addiction, call the toll free number 1-800-504-2650.

Kaitlin Ryan can be reached at or by phone at 989-358-5693.