In the first six months since the Syringe Service Program began operations, more than 600 people in Knoxville received free clean syringes they can use to inject drugs.
The program aims to reduce the spread of diseases for drug users while also giving them an avenue to get help.
"Clean syringes, although they are not the answer to the opioid epidemic, they are certainly a part of it to help us proceed in that direction," said Dr. Kelly Cooper, Director of Medical Strategy and Development for Positively Living.
The non-profit began the exchange program in March and saw most of their clients beginning in August.
The Syringe Service Program allows users to exchange dirty syringes used to get high for clean ones, all anonymously and for free. Advocates say the program helps users inject drugs more safely and gives them an opportunity to get help.
"What our goal is with the Syringe Services Program is not about necessarily the syringes, it’s about that engagement, that encounter with participants," said Dr. Cooper. "We have approximately 1,000 encounters that we’ve done in approximately six months. Of those 1,000 encounters, about a third of them are new clients that come to see us every encounter. Two thirds are return clients."
Two times a week for two hours a day at two different locations, a nondescript white van pulls up to a street corner in Knoxville to give drug users free clean syringes. The goal is to meet users where they’re at and help stop the spread of diseases like Hepatitis and HIV.
With each interaction, the users are encouraged to get treatment. The Tennessee Department of Health says people who inject drugs are five times more likely to enter treatment for substance use disorder when participating in a syringe exchange program.
"We are in the midst of a Hepatitis C epidemic in Eastern Tennessee," said Dr. Cooper. "The engagement process is really, really important in substance use, misuse, and abuse."
The program also gives users free doses of the overdose reversal drug naloxone. Of the roughly 1,000 doses they’ve given out so far, more than 100 have been used to save lives.
"People absolutely could have died from an overdose if it weren’t for naloxone getting out to the people who need it," said Dr. Cooper.
The program says they have a two to one exchange rate for the syringes. That means for every two syringes they give out, they get one back.