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SF’s new needle cleanup team to get van and branded jackets

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A city employee picks up discarded needles. San Francisco is preparing to launch a van to respond to resident complaints about needle litter. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

Residents will soon start seeing a new city-funded syringe disposal cleanup team driving around in a brand new van.

The Health Commission recently approved a 14-month $916,907 contract with the San Francisco AIDS Foundation to hire a 10-member syringe clean-up team.

The funding includes the purchase of a van, along with equipment like tongs and gloves and branded jackets.

“The van will be branded with the San Francisco AIDS Foundation logo on it but it will clearly indicate that this is a syringe cleanup program. So it also offers us some visibility for this effort,” said John Melichar, who oversees the contract’s for the Department of Public Health’s Community Health Equity and Promotion Branch.

It’s not exactly clear just when the team will start, but it’s “soon.”

“We have started staffing up, so residents should see more staff picking up syringes soon, though they may not have branded jackets yet,” DPH spokesperson Rachael Kagan said Thursday. “The van will be purchased by June 30th.” The cost for the $30,000 van will come out of the the total $916,907.

The van will transport staff to locations requested by residents, and return with biowaste, Melichar said. The contract calls for the team to operate seven days a week from 6am to 7pm.

Mayor Mark Farrell announced the initiative with Public Health Department director Barbara Garcia in April.

It comes as The City has faced increasing complaints about the syringes around San Francisco, which are distributed to intravenous drug users to reduce the spread of infectious diseases.

Health Commissioner James Loyce said that “they are not, and I place emphasis, they are not ever to engage people in treatment services. They are out there to do one thing and one thing only, collect used needles. And they will do that job successfully I hope.”

He added the effort is to ensure that The City “are able to remove as many needles as possible from the streets.”

Volunteers began providing syringe access in the 1980s in San Francisco through underground needle exchanges. The practice was later sanctioned in 1993 by then San Francisco Mayor Frank Jordan, in defiance of state law. An estimated 22,500 people inject drugs in San Francisco, according to the department’s 2015 estimate.

“San Francisco’s early adoption of syringe access services has contributed to the low level of HIV among PWID [People who inject drugs,” said a May 15 report from the Community Health Equity and Promotion Branch. “The number of new infections among PWID has dropped from 110 to 38 per year.”

The report states that “research has shown that syringe access and disposal programs are the most effective, evidence-based HIV prevention tool for people who use drugs.”

It also notes that “one-for-one exchanges limit the number of syringes and make it more likely that people will end up re-using, or sharing, injection drug equipment.”

Kagan said that “research shows that reducing access to clean syringes increases disease and does not improve the problem of needle litter.”

In addition to street cleanup, The City currently has installed syringe needle disposal boxes and kiosks in 16 locations around The City, including outside the Main Public Library, seven locations on the streets of the Tenderloin and four on SOMA streets.

San Francisco’s syringe access programs distribute about 400,000 syringes monthly, according to Kagan. The department and nonprofits collect more than 275,000 needles each month at various locations and through different methods. There are 13 sites that distribute needles and also provide safe disposal. These sites have about 246,000 needles disposed of safely each month. Disposal boxes can hold up to 20,500 needles and department sweeps of areas collect about 8,000 a month.

In addition, Public Works reports collecting an average of 12,640 needles per month in areas like homeless encampments and there are needle disposal locations at Public Works’ Pit Stops public toilets program.

Other efforts in the works to reduce syringe litter include a plan to launch safe injection sites, where people can inject drugs under medical supervision.

As for the new 10-member team, it’s unclear how many needles they will be able to collect. “There are not pre-set syringe collection targets, but we will see the totals in quarterly reports from the San Francisco AIDS Foundation,” Kagan said. “That will give us a better sense of the volume and productivity.”

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