The Parish Council had a tough decision to make last Thursday.
On the one hand, cases of Hepatitis and HIV are on the rise in Livingston Parish. Not only that, but they’re on the rise in new demographics, with younger individuals in the 25-35 age bracket now reporting the infection at an alarming rate.
In fact, according to the state’s Department of Health (DHH), both Hepatitis and HIV cases are highest in Livingston Parish at a per capita rate, when compared to state wide averages.
Concerns about those diseases, which can be carried by blood and – specifically – dirty needles which the proposed ‘syringe exchange program’ would help curb, were the spark that led to DHH’s visit to Livingston Parish.
The concern was held by all of the council.
However, those statistics taken a little far during the public hearing Thursday in which parish councilman Tracy Girlinghouse (District 7) asked how the rates of those diseases compared to Orleans or East Baton Rouge Parishes.
According to DHH, Livingston Parish still surpassed both of those parishes on a rate basis – not just a per capita.
Girlinghouse didn’t bite, and neither did the rest of the council. Both parishes have roughly four times the population of Livingston, with a large contingent of poor citizens, and Girlinghouse believed that if the numbers reported to the state reflected that claim, then the rate of infection probably wasn’t being reported correctly.
There were other concerns, as well, including a hesitation on the part of DHH when asked if participants in the program would be tracked, both in terms of visits and where they lived. The DHH representative admitted than many program participants didn’t have a home address, and were impossible to track. The syringe program ordinance would prevent law enforcement from tracking them at all, or visiting them after they enrolled in the program.
Also, whether or not participants had to have a dirty needle to enroll in the program, or could they just come for a fresh one? That line of thinking led to questions about individuals with diabetes who have to purchase their own needles for insulin – do they qualify?
DHH did say that the initial piece of the puzzle was to work with local stakeholders – including the council and sheriff – to find the best way to implement a local program. Just passing the ordinance didn’t automatically establish a program to begin exchanging needles.
However, when pressed for the most important pillar upon which the parish council would make it’s decision, DHH faltered. Parish Councilman Jeff Ard (District 1) asked for data on the current syringe exchange programs in the state, which exist in East Baton Rouge, Orleans, Bossier (Shreveport), and Rapides (Alexandria).
They didn’t have the data on hand, and would have to press those districts for it. Further, those programs were only started as late as 2017, so only two years worth of data exist – which paints less than a full, necessary picture to make such a heavy decision.
The council, therefore, made the responsible decision of tabling the measure until DHH could return with numbers that made sense. Who knows, those numbers may not back the program at all and, in fact, debunk it all together. It’s very difficult to tell if people on drugs are within their right mind enough to consider exchanging a dirty needle in the middle of a high.
However, if the program can help even just a few avoid drug addiction and the contracting (as well as spread) of disease, then it’s worth considering. But, until the data exists to show that the program does indeed bring those benefits, the council made the right decision to move on and focus on other issues that are plaguing the parish.