As the number of HIV-positive cases continues to rise in Scott County, Gov. Mike Pence said he felt it was necessary to issue a public health emergency.
On Wednesday at Mid-America Science Park in Scottsburg, Pence had the opportunity to hear from Scott County stakeholders involved in battling the HIV outbreak.
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Following that meeting, he addressed the media to announce he was declaring the executive order. A news conference is set for 10 a.m. today at the Statehouse in Indianapolis to provide details of that executive order, which extends under Indiana law for 30 days.
“I don’t take this action lightly,” Pence said. “It is built upon what the Indiana State Department of Health has been doing with a very capable health care provider community here in Scott County and the surrounding area and the efforts that have been made since January when these initial cases emerged.”
Initially, there were seven confirmed HIV-positive cases, all related to intravenous drug use. That has since grown to 72 confirmed cases, along with seven preliminary positive cases.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention officials arrived in Scott County on Monday and met with Pence later that day. That’s when the epidemic was confirmed.
Pence said it’s considered an epidemic because the number of infections is outside the norm. The average number of cases for a county the size of Scott is five per year, he added.
By executing the executive order, Pence said it allows him to provide resources, personnel and new tools and flexibility to “stop the outbreak in its tracks.” This will “robustly expand” the involvement of state agencies into the community to work with local health officials and law enforcement, he added.
“This is not a Scott County problem. This is an Indiana problem,” Pence said. “And the people of Indiana are here to come alongside our fellow Hoosiers here in Scott County and work this problem and deal with this crisis in a way that will save lives and restore health and law and order to this community.”
Indiana State Health Commissioner Dr. Jerome Adams praised Pence for his quick action to address the epidemic.
“If we don’t get it solved down here in Scott County, it’s going to spread to the surrounding counties, it’s going to spread to the entire state, and we’re going to see this throughout the state and the country,” Adams said.
State Epidemiologist Pam Pontones said the vast majority of the confirmed cases involve people who reside in or have been traced to Scott County. When the outbreak was announced, health officials also reported cases in Jackson, Clark, Washington and Perry counties.
The cases are linked to injection drug abuse of the prescription opioid painkiller Opana, with some individuals also reporting sexual intercourse as a possible mode of transmission.
Pontones said each time a new positive case is identified, disease intervention specialists work with that person to identify other people who may have been exposed. Those contacts then have to be tracked down.
“This is an Indiana problem because contacts move or live in different places,” Pontones said. “We want to make sure we trace every single person who may potentially have been exposed or engaged in activity that puts them at risk.”
On Monday, the state health department launched a public awareness campaign, “You Are Not Alone,” in Scott and surrounding counties.
“We want them to understand it’s a problem and there are options out there to get mental health treatment, to help deal with your addiction, to get treatment for HIV,” Adams said.
Pence said disease intervention specialists, testers and care coordinators from other areas of the state have been sent to Scott County to assist with testing and tracing contacts.
Within the week, Pence said an incident command center will be established in the county, along with a mobile vital records unit. He said with the Healthy Indiana Plan or HIP 2.0, HIV-infected people can receive help, treatment and coverage.
Adams and Pence both encourage people who think they have been exposed to HIV to get tested and seek help.
“HIV is not the death sentence that it once was. It’s not even close,” Adams said. “You can live 25, 30, 50 years if you get into treatment. We want people to know that we are here to help test you, to help get you signed up for coverage, to get you in to see a physician and to make sure you can go on to live a productive life despite making mistakes earlier on.”
Pence had one word for anyone involved in intravenous drug use: Stop.
“Your life is at stake,” he said. “If you are using drugs intravenously, if you are using any drugs, get help. There is help in this community and all communities across the state of Indiana.”
Pence said it’s good to see everyone working together to address the issue.
“I am deeply impressed by the resolve and the compassion of this community,” he said. “I’m very confident that working with local health officials, working with nonprofit organizations, working with community leaders and working with law enforcement that we’re going to solve this problem and we are going to restore good health and law and order into Scott County.”
State Rep. Terry Goodin, an Austin Democrat who represents District 66, including Scott County, said he was happy to see the governor’s executive order.
“This just shows … how serious they are in fighting this,” Goodin said. “This shows that this is a front that is going to be joined in by all hands, and we will conquer this.”
At 10 a.m. today at the Statehouse in Indianapolis, Gov. Mike Pence will conduct a news conference on the details of his executive order declaring a public health disaster emergency in Scott County. The meeting will be in Room 201 at 200 W. Washington St.
Also, Scott County Partnership is starting a committee that is part of the Get Healthy Scott County initiative to focus on the HIV epidemic. Anyone interested is invited to a meeting at noon today at the LifeLong Learning Center, 1092 Community Way, Scottsburg. Meetings will continue every Thursday.