Intravenous drug users can get clean needles, be tested for Hepatitis C and HIV and have access to treatment, all anonymously, beginning today at the Graves County Health Department.

The needle exchange will be open from noon to 2 p.m. each Wednesday. Participants will enter from a separately marked entrance on the 10th Street side of the health department, 416 Central Ave.

It is the first needle exchange program anywhere in far western Kentucky and the only one within a 2½ hour drive. The nearest other needle exchange program is in Bowling Green.

On Monday, the health department held an open house to introduce how the program works.

It starts when people arrive and are greeted by a peer counselor, said Noel Coplen, health department director.

"The peer counselor will be greeting them, telling them goodbyes. Hopefully, over time, they will build a relationship with her," Coplen said.

On the first visit, participants will receive a card with an identification number. They are never asked for their name, said Lauren Carr, one of the program's organizers.

They are immediately tested for Hepatitis C and HIV and informed of their test results and any treatment options. They answer statistical questions, such as their ZIP code, that are recorded on iPads to eliminate most paperwork, and they receive clean needles and a container to safely dispose of them. They also learn about the good Samaritan program for people helping someone who has overdosed on opiates and can receive a free supply of Narcan, which can help reverse drug overdoses, Carr said.

After their second visit, needles are provided only on a one-to-one basis, exchanged for up to 40 clean needles for dirty needles participants bring in.

At any time, any participant wanting help has only to ask for it to be taken, that day, to a residential treatment program, Carr said.

The goals for the program include encouraging addicts to seek treatment, decreasing the spread of diseases and reducing the risk of harm to others who may come across needles that have been disposed of incorrectly, she said.

Coplen said the program was fully funded by federal grants, with the exception of the syringes themselves, which cost the health department 8 cents each.

Carr said she did not know how many people would use the program, although based on conversations with focus groups of addicts in treatment and employees at similar programs in Kentucky, she expected a slow start, but then word of mouth to spread quickly.

Each time someone visits the exchange, participants also receive a small bag of supplies, which includes condoms, alcohol prep pads and cotton balls for hygiene, and a clean needle disposal container.