As the Staten Island AIDS Task Force and Staten Island University Hospital await word from the state on whether they can begin the borough's first needle exchange program, in Mariners Harbor, Bloomfield and Stapleton, debate over the plan has intensified.
The task force and the hospital applied to the State Department of Health's AIDS Institute in February for permission to start the program, an effort to curb transmission of the AIDS virus. A study by the Health Department last year found that slightly more than half of the 2,218 reported cases of AIDS on Staten Island by the end of 1997 were a result of intravenous drug use, which was double the national rate.
A spokesman for the Health Department, John Signor, said the application was being reviewed. "I don't want to speculate on when a decision will be made," he said.
There are two methadone centers in the borough, in Stapleton and Prince's Bay, but there is no place for drug users to trade used needles for sterile ones.
On Tuesday, Borough President Guy V. Molinari, a Republican, said the plan should be given a chance. He said the program, which calls for a worker in a van to exchange needles with addicts at the three sites a total of five times a week, had the potential to save lives. But, he said, the effects of needle exchange on the community should be monitored for three to six months.
An opponent of the plan, City Councilman James S. Oddo, a Republican from Old Town, said a needle exchange program would send "a horrible message." Most of his constituents oppose the program, he said, adding, "With a needle exchange, we're giving people the tools to kill themselves."
Another Republican City Councilman, Steven J. Fiala of Rossville, also opposes the plan. In a recent newsletter to constituents, he called it immoral. Staten Island's State Senator, John J. Marchi, a Republican from Ward Hill, is also against it, as are Community Boards 1, 2 and 3 and groups like Citizens of Ocean Breeze and the Midland Beach Merchants Association.
Supporters of the plan include the Richmond County Medical Society, the Richmond County Liberal Party, the Clergy Association of Staten Island, the Mount Calvary Church in West Brighton, and the Staten Island Million Man March Coalition.
The executive director of the Staten Island AIDS Task Force, Diane Arneth, said the idea of a needle exchange program has never been welcomed in Staten Island. "But," she said, "the issue has always been colored by misinformation and emotional reactions." Ms. Arneth said that the program would not promote drug use or endanger neighborhoods.
She said she had been visiting community groups to explain the need for the program. The task force has also designed a T-shirt for supporters to wear that shows an image of a syringe inside a recycling symbol with the words "Remember, the point is to save lives."
At a methadone clinic run by Staten Island University Hospital on Water Street in Stapleton, a steady stream of people came and went Tuesday morning. One woman who was leaving said a needle exchange program was a good idea. She said she knew intravenous drug users on Staten Island who had contracted the H.I.V. virus.
"People who shoot up will use dirty needles if they can't find clean ones," she said. "That's how the virus gets spread."