Giving out 6,300 clean needles, Fargo focuses on reducing harm of drug addiction

FARGO -- In Jeremy Kelly's office are several locked cabinets filled with drug paraphernalia, including syringes, spoon-like drug cookers and cotton balls for filtering drugs.
Jeremy Kelly, a harm reduction specialist at Fargo Cass Public Health, highlights drug paraphernalia and medical supplies available to drug users at the city's new Harm Reduction Center on Monday, July 23, 2018. Tu-Uyen Tran / The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead

FARGO - In Jeremy Kelly's office are several locked cabinets filled with drug paraphernalia, including syringes, spoon-like drug cookers and cotton balls for filtering drugs.

There are also gauze bandages, triple antibiotic ointment and alcohol-soaked cleaning pads.

"That reduces a lot of chance of disease," Kelly said Monday, July 23. "Hepatitis can live on a countertop for 30 days or something like that. We want to make sure people have clean surface, clean gear, everything."

Kelly was giving a tour of Fargo Cass Public Health's new Harm Reduction Center, best known as home of the city's only needle exchange. Located at 505 Fifth St. N. in an old city building at the foot of the downtown water tower, it's been open for about three months.

In that time, 80 individuals have visited a total of 221 times, according to the public health department. The city has offered 16 briefings on disease prevention, 6,310 syringes and 48 doses of naloxone, used to counteract opiate overdoses. The naloxone has saved six lives.

Kelly said the large number of syringes given out is partly because clients are bringing them to friends, which spreads the word about the center.

The center's goal, as its name suggests, is to reach out to drug users and help reduce the harm they suffer from their addiction. That includes everything from preventing diseases that spread through sharing needles, to helping them maintain a regular schedule so they can keep their jobs, to getting addiction treatment.

"It's more than just a syringe exchange program," said Jan Eliassen, who oversees the center as director of the public health department's new Harm Reduction Division. "So often programs like this are seen as - people believe that's all that we do and we actually do a few different things. One of the biggest things is relationships."

These relationships are opportunities for clients to talk about the path they want to take in life and health concerns they might have with public health staff, she said. The center can then refer clients to treatment options, she said.

"Sometimes folks come in and they're only looking for the supplies that we provide but that starts the relationship," she said. "In most cases that leads to something a little bit more significant and meaningful."

Eliassen is the longtime executive director of the Gladys Ray Shelter and Veteran's Drop-in Center, which includes a detox facility. As head of the new division, her responsibilities now include the Harm Reduction Center.

Kelly is a founder of the Fargo/Moorhead Good Neighbor Project in 2015 in Moorhead. It housed the area's first needle exchange. He started working for Fargo Cass Public Health in late 2017 as a harm reduction specialist, bringing his expertise to the needle exchange here.

Where traditional approaches to drug addiction usually require people to go clean before they qualify for help, harm reduction aims to help people even as they use drugs, according to Kelly. In fact, going clean isn't really the center's sole purpose.

"Often times harm reduction is the treatment - so often - because it gets people thinking about options and one of those options is cutting down and at the far end of that is quitting," Kelly said, meaning even when people don't quit it's still worthwhile to reduce the harm they suffer.

Clients of the center can't use drugs at the center, but he said he could see the day when that happens. The United States isn't ready for it, but Canada is and he said knows of a center in Vancouver, B.C., that allows it. He said with doctors and nurses around, no drug user has died of an overdose.