ORLANDO, Fla. — Florida counties are one step closer to putting free needles in the hands of drug users.
- Dr. Raul Pino established clean needle exchange in Connecticut
- He says he "cannot wait" to implement a similar program here
- He says it's a way to address skyrocketing hepatitis A, HIV cases
It’s all part of the Infectious Disease Elimination Act that Gov. Ron DeSantis signed into law.
In a one-on-one interview with Spectrum News 13 Watchdog reporter Stephanie Coueignoux, the new Health Department interim director for Orange County, Dr. Raul Pino, called the program "potentially lifesaving."
Pino joined the Health Department in June from the Connecticut Department of Health, where he helped to establish a clean needle exchange program there.
It's "something I cannot wait to implement, to be honest with you," Pino said.
Last week, DeSantis signed a bill that allows counties to decide whether to open their own needle exchange programs, along with other services.
The main idea being to address the skyrocketing HIV and hepatitis A rates among people who share needles.
Pino said it's also a chance to build trust and offer treatment and addiction services.
"It’s an opportunity to interact with them. It’s an opportunity to be there when they are ready and receive the services they need," Pino said.
Orange County has one of the highest rates of new HIV cases in the U.S. — sharing used needles being part of the reason.
In May, we traveled to Miami for a first-hand look at the state’s only needle exchange pilot program.
Now, Pino hopes to visit Miami and bring back lessons from that program.
Here in Orange County, Pino has already taken the necessary initial steps, so if Orange County commissioners approve the program, he could start the process within a week.
As for location, Pino thinks mobile units would most effective, like the ones used by the pilot program in Miami.
"We envision a mobile unit that address several issues around the county and several areas in different days of the week, at different times," Pino said.
He understands that critics may argue that this approach enables drug use, but he says addiction and infectious diseases are public health crises that must be addressed.
"It’s critical to keep the health of the county for all of us," Pino said.
Spectrum News 13 reached out to Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings to ask whether he’d support a program here. A spokeswoman declined our request for an interview but in an email said, "We are reviewing information about needle exchange programs."