ON AUG. 26, the Executive Council approved $770,000 in funding for the New Hampshire Harm Reduction Coalition to provide syringe service programs in Manchester, Nashua, Keene, Concord and the Seacoast region over a two-year period.
That surprised Manchester officials, who are asking the state to hold off disbursing the funds until the organization can “demonstrate that they are operating lawfully and in partnership” with Manchester, according to an email from city health director Anna Thomas to Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner Lori Shibinette.
Syringe Services Programs (SSPs), also known as syringe exchange, needle exchange and needle-syringe programs, provide free access to sterile needles and syringes and facilitate safe disposal of used needles and syringes.
Legislation passed in June of 2017 allows syringe service programs to operate in New Hampshire and decriminalizes used syringes containing residual amounts of controlled substances.
In January, Thomas spoke before the Governor’s Commission on Alcohol and Other Drugs about Manchester’s concerns with the NHHRC and its local operation, the Queen City Exchange Program.
Thomas followed up with a letter in February to Patrick Tufts, president and CEO of Granite United Way and chairman of the Governor’s Commission on Alcohol and Other Drugs, spelling out several of those concerns, including a lack of collaboration with local officials, little to no education on available services, and improper collection and disposal of syringes, among other issues.
“The goal of a successful syringe service program is to build trusting relationships with all stakeholders, including clients and community partners, to provide a wide range of health services and a lifeline to those struggling with addiction,” Thomas wrote.
“Its focus is not merely the exchange of clean and used needles, but the building of a pathway for those struggling with addiction to substance use treatment, medical care, mental health services, and other support services. Unfortunately, this is not what is happening in Manchester where the SSP is not partnering with the city.”
According to Thomas, city health officials learned in early April 2018 that the Queen City Exchange was providing services in Manchester without registering with DHHS.
On April 16, 2019, Mayor Joyce Craig, Police Chief Carlo Capano, Fire Chief Dan Goonan, City Solicitor Emily Rice and health officials met with coalition representatives to discuss the group’s intentions and potential “conflict with existing efforts in the city.”
According to Thomas, the Queen City Exchange did not commit to the “level of collaboration and transparency” local officials believe is needed for a successful SSP.
NHHRC chairwoman Kerry Nolte followed up with an email saying her group would cease regularly scheduled outreach in the city and respond only case by case.
A report sent to health officials in both Manchester and Nashua from the state’s Bureau of Infectious Disease Control showed that between July 1, 2017 and June 30, 2019, nearly 8,000 needles were distributed by the Queen City Exchange to people in the Manchester area, with only 10 referrals to HIV and HCV testing and substance-use disorder treatment.
In her email to Tufts, Thomas wrote that despite Queen City Exchange’s promise to respond only on a call-by-call basis, she regularly heard reports to the contrary.
In October 2019 and again this past February, Thomas said she received photos of the Queen City Exchange operating a needle-exchange program under a tent in Veterans Park, despite not having a permit from the city.
According to Thomas, when contacted by city Parks and Recreation officials, Nolte told them she is “not going into the park” and “when they have their meeting, it is on the sidewalk, outside of Veteran’s Park.”
Thomas wrote, “At no time has anyone from the Queen City Exchange contacted our city’s leadership to coordinate these services or to provide the necessary comprehensive programming which evidence-based syringe service programs promote.
“Instead, the absence of transparency and collaboration has fostered a lack of trust with key community leaders in Manchester with no assurance that constituents’ needs are being met responsibly.”
Thomas has requested that the state not give the group funds to operate in Manchester.
Last week Craig told city aldermen she felt it was “critically important” that board members vote to back Thomas.
“It’s not that we’re opposed to syringe services in the city of Manchester,” Craig said. “But what we have seen, and what we have encountered, there is not education and there is not correct disposal of needles, and many, many other issues which Anna articulated in the letter.”
Aldermen voted to support Thomas.
Attempts to reach Nolte for comment were unsuccessful.
Outdoor dining extended
Last week city aldermen approved Craig’s request to extend the city’s expanded outdoor seating program into early November.
Aldermen previously voted to allow restaurants along Elm Street to expand outdoor seating to parking spaces in front of their sidewalks.
“We have seen tremendous success with this program,” Craig said. Seven restaurants have expanded their seating to include 38 additional tables and 208 additional chairs.
The program had been set to end Oct. 9, with the highway department scheduled to remove the concrete barriers over the weekend of Oct. 10-11.
Aldermen voted this week to extend the program through Sunday, Nov. 1, with the highway department removing the barriers Monday, Nov. 2 and Tuesday, Nov. 3.
Signs of change
Drivers on Wellington Road soon will see two flashing digital signs letting them know how fast they’re going, thanks to a donation from Dartmouth-Hitchcock.
After a July crash in which a vehicle drove off Wellington Road, snapped a utility pole and crashed into the living room of a nearby home, Ward 2 Alderman Will Stewart asked the public works department to compile data on Wellington Road east of Edward J. Roy Drive.
Data collected showed an average speed of 38 mph, with 90% of traffic exceeding the posted speed limit of 30 mph and 33.8% exceeding 40 mph.
After learning last month that Manchester Community College offered to donate two driver feedback signs to be permanently installed on Front Street, Stewart reached out to Dartmouth-Hitchcock, which has a clinic in Ward 2 just off Wellington Road, to see whether they would be willing to donate signs for placement in the neighborhood.