Cathy Kunkel: The HIV crisis is not on the city’s agenda, but it will not go away (Opinion) | Opinion comments
Charleston is the ground zero for a national overdose crisis. Hepatitis and HIV rates are on the rise due to sharing of needles by intravenous drug users.
In 2018, then-mayor Danny Jones decided to shut down the city’s only harm reduction program that followed best practices for distributing clean needles. At the time, the mayor ignored advice from a broad coalition of medical professionals, religious leaders and recovering people.
Last week, Mayor Amy Goodwin followed in her footsteps.
Many of us hoped she wouldn’t. In 2018, Goodwin ran against Jones’ hand-picked successor JB Akers (who once called out people with substance use disorders who lined up for help.) supported harm reduction, promising to listen to health care experts.
She also wrote at the time: “Let me say firmly that politics has no place in security issues. Nothing.”
Actions speak louder than words.
We thought the new mayor would heed her campaign rhetoric and reinstate the needs-based harm reduction program Jones had shut down. But after his election, a year passed without action. Then another year passed and overdose deaths continued to increase. This is the third year of his administration and Goodwin has made no effort to reinstate the Kanawha-Charleston Department of Health’s nationally recognized harm reduction program.
Kanawha County has had as many new HIV cases in the past year as the whole of New York City, which is almost 50 times our size. In a briefing attended by the mayor, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention called our HIV epidemic “the most serious in the United States.”
Earlier this month, the West Virginia legislature passed a bill to restrict harm reduction programs and fine programs up to $ 10,000 if they do not meet restrictive and non-CDC requirements.
Last week, Goodwin and the Charleston City Council decided the legislature was not going far enough. They added a criminal sanction to the fine. Goodwin, a Democrat, and 24 city council members added what the Republican supermajority in the Legislature or any other city in the state had: misdemeanor charges. The message is clear. If you are a nurse, pastor, or volunteer who dares to follow CDC guidelines in tackling the Charleston epidemic, the city of Charleston is not going to help you. It will stop you.
This new city ordinance is much worse than what we saw in 2018. The fallout will be worse too. We know what happens next.
Without needs-based harm reduction programs to provide safe disposal, needle waste will increase. More of us will overdose. More of us will get hepatitis C and HIV. More of us will die.
And we will remain a nuisance to the rest of the nation.
Cathy Kunkel is a former U.S. House of Representatives candidate, energy analyst, and environmental and community activist.