UM Health Needle-Exchange Program Expanding

The first needle exchange facility in Florida is going mobile.

Just a few months after a new state law allowed the University of Miami Health System to open the IDEA Exchange, the clean syringe program is adding a mobile van and more volunteers are taking to the streets on foot to provide supplies, including Naloxone and information for opioid users who may be at a turning point and looking to seek treatment.

The program, started by third year resident Dr. Hansel Tookes, is expanding its reach by using a new mobile van to exchange needles and distribute Naloxone, the antidote which has been able to save many people from opioid overdoses, which remain on the rise across the country, especially in South Florida where Miami and West Palm Beach have seen notable spikes since the synthetic and extremely potent fentanyl has become more widely available.

Joy Fishman is one of the volunteers with the IDEA Exchange. She lost her son to an overdose and her late husband helped develop Naloxone, which is also used to help bring people out of anesthesia after surgery.

"This is a place where a drug-addicted person can come and not be judged, not be called names, (but) be accepted as a human being in need," Fishman said. “Don’t treat them like they’re lost souls, they’re not."

Since opening on World AIDS Day in December, the IDEA Exchange has provided services for more than 200 people, including conducting tests for HIV and Hepatitis C often spread by dirty needles, and connected more than 20 people to drug treatment programs. In 2016, more than 33,000 people died from accidental drug overdoses involving opioids, such as prescription pain medications, heroin, and fentanyl, a powerful synthetic opioid. In 2015, the rate of death from overdose in Florida rose 22%, one of the highest increases in the nation. 

"Syringe exchanges are one of the primary, most effective and best sites for delivering the Naloxone to the people who need it the most," said Megan McLemore, a Senior Researcher with Human Rights Watch, which released a report on what cities and states can do to help cut down on opioid-related deaths. "Naloxone should be as easy to get as Tylenol.

City of Miami Police Officers on hand for the announcement, led by Homeless Outreach Coordinator James Barnet, agreed that the IDEA Exchange is the type of place more drug users can come, without fear of being arrested, and potentially get on a path to recovery.

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