Three women refuse to let the recent HIV outbreak turn their hometown into a community of fear.
Instead, high school friends Lindsey McDonald, 25, Chantel Worley, 24, and Erin Hopkins, 25, have created a “Take Back Scott County” Facebook page and set a date for volunteers to sweep locations frequented by children and teens, such as parks, to rid them of contaminated syringes.
They hope to spark a change for a safer, brighter future.
“We hope to encourage others to help us take back our community,” the women said in an email.
The three graduated from Austin High School and have remained friends. McDonald lives in Clark County, while Worley and Hopkins live in Scott County. Worley and Hopkins both have family in Jackson County.
The women said positive energy has been hard to come by the past few weeks in the community, and they want to “ignite the fire in everyone’s hearts to be the change.”
Last month, Gov. Mike Pence issued an executive order declaring a public health emergency in Scott County after an HIV outbreak in southeastern Indiana reached 74 confirmed and seven preliminary cases related to the outbreak. Jackson County health officials also report a ten-fold increase in hepatitis C cases here in the past month and believe the increase is tied to people being tested for HIV.
The HIV outbreak has particularly impacted Scott County, but cases also have been found in Jackson, Clark, Perry and Washington counties. The outbreak is linked to people sharing needles, specifically after injecting Opana, a pain medication, according to state health officials.
Pence also has authorized a short-term needle-exchange program there.
“To reach out to our community in this time of need, we welcome them to join us and brainstorm with us as we begin our journey to claiming back our hometown from addiction and drug abuse,” the women said.
The first sweep will be from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. April 11 in Austin. Volunteers should meet at The Church of the New Covenant, 1054 Clay St.
Groups will be formed and dispersed to different areas. The women said they are taking feedback from the community if there are specific spots that need to be cleaned up. They also said they have plans to visit Crothersville in the future.
“Our sweep will include a list of local places where we have found youth are present and may be at risk of being exposed to used needles or other dangerous objects discarded by frequent users,” they said.
As a safety measure, they have contacted the Austin Police Department and were given tips on how to use needle-nose pliers to dispose of needles, using bleach and water to clean them off afterward. They were also told to use a detergent bottle or something similar to put the sharps in, and then drop them off at the community outreach center for disposal.
The women also have reached out to county leaders and health officials, including the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, who have come to Scott County to help combat the HIV spread. The women said health officials have offered to train them on how to make a safe sweep and will even supply them with equipment.
In less than 24 hours, the “Take Back Scott County” Facebook page received more than 800 “likes” with comments from followers who want to step and help out.
Tammy Densford, of Scottsburg, wrote: “There are still a lot of positive things going on in our county. We support each other and pull together in times of crisis and illness. This epidemic shouldn’t be any different.”
Not all comments and feedback have been so polite. However, McDonald, Worley, and Hopkins said they won’t let that stop them from trying to make a difference in a place that means so much to them.
“There will always be negativity in anything you do. You can’t please everyone. But we refuse to let any negative thoughts stand in our way,” they said.
Densford said she’s heard the negative chatter among some residents saying they want to pack up and move away, but she said that negativity just adds to the already heartbreaking situation. She urges residents have to keep hope.
“We still have a long battle ahead of us,” Densford said. “But I see hope for Scott County. I’m not ready to throw in the towel and move away, and I know there are a couple thousand good people here who feel the same way. If we can get those people to pull together and become unified to fight this epidemic, we will see our community flourish again.”
A sweep in Scott County is set from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. April 11. Volunteers will meet at The Church of the New Covenant, 1054 Clay St., Austin.
Participants should be 18 or older or be accompanied by an adult.
Volunteers should wear closed shoes to protect their feet since there will be walking. Also, volunteers are encouraged to wear red to signify HIV and drug abuse awareness.
For information, visit the Take Back Scott County Facebook page.