WILLIMANTIC NEEDLE EXCHANGE PROGRAM TO END; STATE BLAMES LACK OF COMMUNITY SUPPORT by STEPHANIE REITZ; Courant Staff Writer Copyright (c) 1997, The Hartford Courant Company THE HARTFORD COURANT March 11, 1997 TOWN NEWS; Pg. B1 Contact Info for THE HARTFORD COURANT: Hartford Courant (CT) HARTFORD COURANT HARTFORD CT 12035206941; The state plans to end Willimantic's needle exchange program March 21, capping months of debate that started when a toddler was pricked during the summer by a discarded needle. In letters delivered Monday to town and regional health service officials, state Public Health Commissioner Stephen A. Harriman said Gov. John G. Rowland has reluctantly approved the cutoff. The governor agreed with Harriman's opinion that the needle exchange program cannot survive without the community's support. Both officials urge area leaders to strengthen other eastern Connecticut AIDSprevention services to fill the void, Harriman's letters say. The program is run by the Windham Regional Community Council. It had 308 registered clients as of January, council Executive Director Jeffrey Beadle said Monday. The agency plans to continue to distribute AIDSprevention information and condoms, and to refer drug users to treatment programs, he said. The community council gets about $50,000 a year from the state to run the exchange program. It allows a onetoone swap of used needles for new needles plus bleach and alcohol wipes, condoms and information on AIDS prevention. No alternative has been developed yet. The needle exchange program has been the topic of emotional debate since a 2yearold Willimantic girl found a discarded needle on the sidewalk near her home in July. More than 400 used needles were discovered throughout the community in the following weeks. "Many of us, myself included, feel that the program's concept is good. But there were problems in Willimantic that weren't addressed, and it simply was not welcomed here," state Rep. John Lescoe, D Windham, said Monday. Lescoe and state Sen. Donald Williams Jr., DThompson, introduced a bill last year to eliminate the town program. But now that the state has approved the cutoff, their bill is no longer necessary, Lescoe said. Responding to community furor, the board of selectmen voted 74 last year to ask the state to end the exchange program in Willimantic. First Selectman Walter Pawelkiewicz, one of the four officials who wanted to retain the program, said Monday it is time to put the issue to rest. "With or without the program, there will still be discarded syringes. That's the irony," he said. "But at least we can move on to other things and let the professionals work out the best way to deliver the appropriate services." Pawelkiewicz said he plans to ask the North Central Health District to help coordinate an areawide AIDS services referral system. Under state law, pharmacies can sell up to 10 needles per person over the counter without a prescription. But the sales are not mandated and only one or two pharmacies in the area still participate, Beadle said. There also are few transportation options for drug users who want to buy new needles at pharmacies in other regions, he said. Beadle said he is afraid that the result of eliminating the Willimantic program will be more shared needles, a major culprit in the spread of AIDS. "There will be virtually no outlets for them to purchase syringes, even though they're legal," Beadle said. "We're just very disappointed that this couldn't have been worked out in some other way."