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Needle Exchange Program Gets Unanimous Approval In Palm Beach County

L-R: Kasha Bornstein, Justin Kunzelman and Nancy McConnell on Sept. 1, 2020, when Palm Beach County Commissioners voted to approve starting a syringe access program with nonprofit Rebel Recovery.
Courtesy of Kasha Bornstein
L-R: Kasha Bornstein, Justin Kunzelman and Nancy McConnell on Sept. 1, 2020, when Palm Beach County Commissioners voted to approve starting a syringe access program with nonprofit Rebel Recovery.

Justin Kunzelman has been doing years of advocacy work, meeting with officials at different levels of government to get a syringe exchange program approved in Palm Beach County. On Tuesday it became official, as county commissioners voted unanimously to approve a program that will be run by the nonprofit Kunzelman co-founded called Rebel Recovery.

This will be the second exchange in South Florida after Miami-Dade’s program.

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"We’re acknowledging somebody’s personhood and their existence, and the reality of the fact that they use drugs, and not admonishing them for it," said Kunzelman, pointing out that all kinds of people, including professionals, use drugs and need help. "On the one hand we fought for something, and we won, and people will have these services and not have to feel like they don't matter or they're not seen or that their needs are not met, and on the other hand it's frustrating that it took so long."

These programs have been proven to help people reduce drug use, seek treatment and also reduce the spread of diseases like HIV and hepatitis C.

One recent study, whose authors include fourth-year students at the University of Miami's Miller School of Medicine, explains how hospitals across Florida would save millions of dollars through these programs, because people who use a clean syringe avoid getting a severe infection and then avoid lengthy and costly hospitalizations.

Kasha Bornstein, one of the study's authors, has spent time during their hospital rotations in Palm Beach County working with Palm Beach County lawmakers and public health administrators to help get this program established and went to the vote on Tuesday.

"The unanimous support is wonderful and I’m happy to say that I’m not surprised," Bornstein said. "This approval came about as the direct result of years of public health advocates, physicians, students and communities of people who use drugs themselves. This is an excellent opportunity to start the work of reversing a decades-long trend of Florida leading the national statistics in HIV rates and improve healthcare access for vulnerable, important members of our communities."

Bornstein said medical students will be able to work with patients who use drugs in the county, to better understand their medical needs that often go under-addressed in hospitals and clinics.

Rebel Recovery plans to run a mobile unit to service hot spots around Palm Beach County. Through these units, a person will be able to swap one used syringe for one new one. The contract goes from Sept. 1, 2020 through Aug. 31, 2025 and by the end of that period, the program expects to serve 200 people and exchange about 210,000 syringes. The start date could be as soon as some time in October.

"It's not just guns and knives and grenades that you find on traffic stops that are a threat to the life and safety of a law enforcement officer," said Palm Beach County Mayor Dave Kerner. "Oftentimes, it is a needle that has been used over and over again by somebody that clearly needs assistance and help, both from the community and the government, and this is one way to help accomplish that."

Last year, Gov. Ron DeSantis approved a bill he signed into law that authorizes counties to set up their own needle exchange programs, but only using private dollars.

"I'd love to see the Legislature in the future do what they can to recognize that this is a public health necessity and to allow governments, public health agencies, particularly agencies like the health care district, be able to utilize public funds to prevent the spread of infectious disease," said Commissioner Melissa McKinley. "But in the meantime we have what we have and it's a good first step forward."

Kunzelman is especially relieved to move forward.

"A syringe exchange really says to to a hidden community and an outcast community — it's OK, we love you, and you deserve support and services, too," he said.

"This is a start of somebody who uses drugs being able to get housing or medical care or dental care or things that we take for granted."

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Verónica Zaragovia