August 8, 2002
With little fanfare, Vermont CARES' Northeast Kingdom office in St. Johnsbury on Monday began distributing needles intended for intravenous drug users. Citing confidentiality, program specialist Penni Cleverley would not say how many people had signed up for the program. Vermont CARES has provided needle-cleaning kits, though not needles, for many years.
By Vermont statute, any needle exchange program must disclose in aggregate form to the Department of Health the number of program users as well as their dates of birth and gender.
Cleverley said the needle exchange program was a way to keep people safe from contracting diseases through needle sharing, such as AIDS and hepatitis, which are drains on the taxpayer-funded public health care system. Moreover, program workers might be able to steer addicts into substance abuse programs.
Some local residents have threatened to monitor the needle exchange site, and the operators of the program are concerned about that. Kimberly Leonard, a staff writer-photographer for the Caledonian Record newspaper in St. Johnsbury, was not welcome when she tried to take photographs from a nearby public street.
Cleverly called in state police to keep newspaper staff away from the area. Sgt. Robert Clark, who was dispatched to the scene, said Leonard was not breaking any laws as long as she remained on a public street and did not trespass. Cleverley insisted federal right-to-privacy laws protect patients from being photographed while entering a medical facility. "People have a right to medical treatment without being exposed," she said.