Needle bleaching makes clinic a sticking point in Fitchburg

INTRO TEXT With an influx of millions of dollars in state funding, a plan to revitalize Fitchburg’s sleepy downtown is in place. The urban renewal money is helping to build a new parking garage for the center-city commuter rail station, along with improving a downtown business core that offers very few enticements to shoppers.

What the downtown revitalization plan doesn’t call for is the Gardner Visiting Nurses Association’s drop-in clinic on Main Street, where drug users can stop by and pick up bleaching kits to clean their needles. Health advocates say the kits are an important part of a larger program to reduce the spread of HIV and other diseases through intravenous drug use. But city officials counter that handing out the kits on Main Street has made the downtown a magnet for crime, including prostitution and violence, and they want the clinic gone.

MARK OSTOW
GVNA executive director Elaine Fluet stresses
the “public health point of view.”

“We don’t feel that it has been helping in the reduction of addiction to injected drugs,” says Mayor Dan Mylott. “We feel that what it has done is concentrate the whole population–or a majority of the population–of people who are using intravenous drugs into one part of Fitchburg. We don’t think it’s right. We don’t think it’s fair.”

So unfair that Mylott has asked the state to cease funding for the clinic. Mylott himself calls the move “extreme,” but the battle over methods of preventing intravenous drug users from infecting themselves and each other with dirty needles is nothing new, and it’s not limited to Fitchburg. The state Department of Public Health, which encourages needle swaps, operates programs in Boston, Cambridge, Northampton, and Provincetown. In a number of other communities around the state, private clinics run programs like the VNA’s. In other cities, like Springfield and Worcester, officials have rejected efforts to create programs.

State health officials believe that programs that promote the safe use of hypodermic needles, which cannot be purchased legally in Massachusetts without prescription, are imperative. They point to the rapid spread of HIV and other diseases through heroin and oxycontin users. They say bleaching kits and other programs that prevent the swapping of infected needles are an important part of a larger battle against disease.

“If you read about the toll on life heroin and oxycontin are taking, there are a lot more things to be concerned about than the use of a bleach kit to bring people into treatment,” says Roseanne Pawelec, a spokesman for the Department of Public Health. “The issue is skyrocketing death rates due to heroin and oxycontin use in Fitchburg and other parts of the state.”

In Fitchburg, city officials are less concerned with the public-health program than they are with the critical mass of drug users who are drawn to the clinic, and the problems they bring with them. This issue came to the fore in March, when a man walked into the GVNA office and stabbed a client.

Local officials are not opposed to the program continuing, but they want the bleaching kits distributed by mobile programs in the neighborhoods, not a centralized site downtown. Talks are continuing. But, for GVNA, the pressure is on.

State Sen. Robert Antonioni, a Leominster Democrat whose district includes Fitchburg, would not say whether he would move to shut off state funding from the association, but he does say the drop-in clinic needs to change its ways. “My hope is they will retool,” says Antonioni. “I think they are going to have to. The support is not there in the city of Fitchburg for the program.”

Elaine Fluet, who became executive director of GVNA on March 29, two weeks after the stabbing, says she is meeting with city officials to try to address their concerns. But she does not want to give up distribution at the center. She says the VNA already does some mobile distribution of bleach kits, but giving them out at the center allows workers to make better contact with clients, whom they hope to draw into treatment.

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“I understand fully the mayor’s concern about crime and drug use, and I share his concern, but we don’t come at it with a criminal justice point of view,” says Fluet. “We come at it from a public health point of view. Maybe we can do [distribution] differently. I’m open to suggestions.”

The city’s hard-line gambit may or may not catch hold at the State House. State Rep. Emile Goguen, a Fitchburg Democrat, says he hopes the two sides can reach an agreement to change the program to fit the liking of both. But in his mind, resuscitating downtown is the main goal to be pursued.

“I worked to get $13 million in urban renewal money for downtown Fitchburg, and if this is smack in the middle of the improvements, I can’t see [downtown] going,” says Goguen. “People don’t want to go into that end of town, and it’s their town. I don’t think they should be deprived going where they want to go.”

Jason Lefferts is a reporter for the Lowell Sun.