CANTON — Lady R. said she was nervous when she went to the City Health Department’s needle exchange for the first time two weeks ago.
She had used opioids for five years, mostly Dilaudid and pain pills, and all she knew about Project SWAP’s offer of clean syringes came from a billboard on Cherry Avenue SE.
But when she entered the Health Department’s downtown office, the workers and volunteers greeted her with smiles and made her feel safe, she said. So she returned the following week for another supply of 110 syringes.
“They don’t look down on you like you’re some kind of animal,” the 54-year-old Canton woman said. “They make you feel welcome.”
Lady R., who spoke to the Canton Repository on the condition her full name not be used, is one of the more than 200 men and women who have used the syringe exchange held 2 to 4 p.m. most Friday afternoons at 420 Market Ave. N.
The program marks its one-year anniversary this month. Through May, Project SWAP has distributed more than 43,000 new syringes, collected almost 33,000 used syringes and handed out 167 kits with the overdose-reversing medication naloxone. It’s also dispensed vaccinations, detox referrals, wound care and grilled cheese sandwiches.
“We’re hoping we can get through another year,” said Diane Thompson, the Health Department’s nursing director.
To do so will take money, something Project SWAP is hoping to raise with help from OhioCAN, a not-for-profit organization with local roots that advocates for families and individuals affected by substance use.
SWAP is an acronym for Stark Wide Approach to Prevention. The Health Department started the exchange last year to prevent hepatitis C and HIV from spreading among individuals who share syringes and other paraphernalia while injecting drugs such as heroin and methamphetamine.
Thompson said she tells participants the program exists so that when they’re ready for treatment, they’ll be able to live healthier lives.
Project SWAP is one of at least 21 syringe-program sites in 13 counties, according to Harm Reduction Ohio.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recognize that syringe programs help prevent the spread of HIV, hepatitis C and other bloodborne infections.
Participants in syringe exchange programs also are five times more likely to enter and stay in drug treatment than individuals who don’t use exchanges, according to a 2000 study conducted in Seattle.
Project SWAP participants are anonymous, but Health Department epidemiologist Amanda Archer tracks general statistics.
The program saw monthly visits grow from 15 in its first month last year to 123 in May, Archer said. Project SWAP also made 35 treatment referrals through May.
A little more than half of exchange participants were men. Participants ranged in age from 18 to 69, with a median age of 33 years.
While three-fifths of visits involved a person from one of five ZIP codes near Canton, the program has attracted participants from 35 different ZIP codes in Stark and seven other counties, Archer said.
“It tells me people are willing to come here,” she said. “It tells me this is a problem not just in Canton or Stark County.”
Archer said she didn’t have data to show that the program directly impacted the rate of hepatitis C infections because that would require continually testing a group of participants over a period of time.
But last year the rate of hepatitis C infections dropped among 25-to-34-year-olds — an age group associated with opioid use — after having jumped 303 percent from 2010 to 2016.
The cost of treating and curing one person of hepatitis C is around $94,500; Project SWAP could supply 236,000 to 1.35 million syringes for the same money, depending on syringe prices, Archer said.
Despite the potential return on investment, Project SWAP has had trouble getting money to buy syringes.
The Health Department provides staff and office space, but has used grant money to buy supplies and syringes, Thompson said, noting a tight city budget and a prohibition on spending federal funds on syringes.
Project SWAP started with a nearly $25,000 grant from AIDS Healthcare Foundation, but the money has been spent. Thompson said the exchange could continue for a year with its inventory of syringes, but might have to limit the number it distributes at some point.
OhioCAN is working with the Health Department to keep Project SWAP running.
Many private foundations won’t give grants to government agencies, but OhioCAN plans to apply for grants and use the money to buy supplies for Project SWAP.
That’s in line with OhioCAN’s mission to help people who are in active addiction, said Cindy Koumoutzis, OhioCAN Executive Director and a SWAP volunteer.
OhioCAN also has started an Amazon Wish List under the name SWAP OhioCAN where individuals can purchase and donate gauze, bandages, tape, alcohol pads, antibiotic ointment and other supplies.
“If there’s anyone in the community that wants to make a small donation to the program, they can do it anonymously,” Thompson said.
The Repository spent Friday afternoon at Project SWAP and some of the 29 participants in the anonymous program agreed to talk with a reporter on the condition their full names wouldn’t be used.
Some were alone, others came with friends. They walked to the exchange or drove cars. After getting their syringes and having a nurse look at any injection-related wounds, most participants grabbed a hot ham-and-cheese sandwich, a brownie and a bottle of water.
Koumoutzis, who brought the snacks, said the participants needed someone to tell them they have worth and to offer a bridge to treatment.
Waking up every morning addicted to drugs is a struggle, said a 35-year-old Canton woman who has used heroin for nine years.
“After a while the drugs don’t get us high anymore,” she said. “They just numb our shame.”
She had visited the exchange every other week for eight months.
Getting syringes at Project SWAP “has to be safer than trying to scam them yourself from the drug store,” she said.
Other participants agreed that clean syringes helped them avoid infections.
Said a woman who identified herself as Jen, 37, of Canton: “They should have done this a long time ago.”