Thirty-one volunteers took to the streets on the north end of Austin on Saturday with a mission — take back Scott County.
With some people wearing red T-shirts with the words “Take Back Scott County” and “This is My Town,” they had the tools necessary to safely collect drug paraphernalia during a Community Sweep.
In three hours, they recovered 25 needles. Organizers called it a “total success.”
The group’s purpose is to try to combat the HIV epidemic in southeastern Indiana, which is centered around the city. As of Friday, there were 95 confirmed positive cases and 11 preliminary positive cases, state health officials reported.
Among the volunteers was James Day of Seymour. He has jobs and knows a lot of people in Austin and Seymour.
“I did this because I consider Scott County my second home. I have families there that have practically adopted me as a family member,” said Day, who has been a substitute teacher at Austin schools since 1986.
“So happy that I got to be a part of this today,” he added. “Beautiful day to walk, and I was honored to walk with amazing people. I also learned a lot today. Amazing things happened today and things we will remember. It is so awesome when people come together for such a great purpose.”
Before taking to the streets, volunteers were trained by the local Emergency Management Agency and equipped with proper safety equipment and sharps containers.
Day said a photographer from Cincinnati and a couple of area television news stations followed the volunteers around the city. Jennifer Walthall, deputy state health commissioner, was there, too.
After the Community Sweep, a message was posted on the Take Back Scott County Facebook page thanking the volunteers and others who supported the event. The page was started by Austin High School graduates Lindsey McDonald, Chantel Worley and Erin Hopkins.
That post garnered several comments.
“This is amazing. Melts my heart the number of caring people. Breaks my heart for the families of those impacted directly,” Amanda Barr said.
“So thankful to be a part of today. Thank you so much for starting this. This is what our city needs — love,” Staci Mullins said.
“For the children of this community, thank you,” Kim Girardot said.
James Jones said he doesn’t live in Scott County anymore, but he still cares about people in the area, and he thanked the volunteers, saying, “You are doing a good thing.”
Others said they would like to help with a future Community Sweep. Organizers hope to do another one soon, and updates will be posted on the Facebook page, which has nearly 2,000 “likes” since it was established in late March.
The Community Sweep came a day after the number of HIV cases topped 100. The number is expected to rise as more individuals seek testing and health officials continue to follow up on contacts of positive cases.
“The fact that we now have more than 100 cases of HIV related to this outbreak speaks to the urgent need to raise awareness about injection drug use and its connection to HIV,” State Health Commissioner Jerome Adams said.
State, local and federal officials are working to provide a comprehensive response to the outbreak, which includes the establishment of a One-Stop Shop for services, a weekly HIV testing and treatment clinic, a needle-exchange program and a public awareness campaign called You Are Not Alone.
The Scott County needle exchange program began April 4 at the Community Outreach Center, 2277 W. Frontage Road in Austin.
An executive order issued in late March by Gov. Mike Pence temporarily suspends the Indiana Code on needle exchange within Scott County. The executive order and needle-exchange program expire April 25 but will be evaluated at the end of that period to determine if they should be continued.
The needle-exchange program is for Scott County residents only and allows participating individuals to receive enough needles for one week based on reported drug use.
Participants are asked to bring their used needles to exchange for clean ones. The needle exchange presents an opportunity for health representatives to provide information about substance abuse treatment and HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment. It also allows for proper disposal of used needles, which can prevent accidental needle-stick hazards.
As of 3 p.m. Thursday, 437 syringes had been turned in, and 1,151 syringes had been distributed.
The needle exchange is open from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Saturday and from noon to 6 p.m. Sunday at the Community Outreach Center, 2277 W. Frontage Road, Austin. Grace Covenant Church is providing free shuttle service by calling 317-617-2223.
The One-Stop Shop provides free HIV testing, vaccinations against tetanus and hepatitis A and B and information about HIV and hepatitis prevention, treatment and resources. Substance abuse referrals are available, and individuals also can get assistance with enrolling in Healthy Indiana Plan (HIP 2.0) insurance. The One-Stop Shop information line is 317-605-1480.
Hoosiers who do not have health care coverage or access to a doctor are encouraged to check availability for the new Healthy Indiana Plan by visiting HIP.IN.gov or calling 1-877-GET-HIP-9.
For information, visit the Indiana State Department of Health at statehealth.in.gov or follow the agency on Twitter at @StateHealthIN and on Facebook at facebook.com/isdh1.
For information and to find out about future Community Sweep events, visit the Take Back Scott County Facebook page, facebook.com/TakeBackScottCo.