HIV cases still on rise

The number of HIV cases in southeastern Indiana has grown by two dozen in the past week, and a health official called it a “significant increase.”

On Friday morning, the Indiana State Department of Health announced there are now 120 confirmed cases of HIV and 10 preliminary positive cases, with most being in Scott County. Other counties affected include Jackson, Clark, Perry and Washington.

Scott County typically sees only about five new HIV cases per year.

“We have seen a significant increase in the number of HIV cases reported this week, but we believe that is because we have been able to offer more testing with the help of additional staff from CDC,” State Health Commissioner Jerome Adams said, referring to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“This sharp increase in the number of HIV-positive cases demonstrates just how critical it is that we are able to locate and test people who have been exposed so that they can avoid spreading it to others and get medical treatment,” he added.

Also Friday morning, a news conference was conducted at the Indiana State Police Post in Sellersburg to announce that 32 people in Scott County have been arrested on drug-dealing or related charges since the beginning of the year.

That’s connected to the growing drug problem that has sparked a rise in HIV cases, which 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.

The Scott County Prosecutor’s office and Scott County Sheriff’s Department worked with state police and the Austin Police Department to make the arrests.

The CDC began sending support staff last month to assist in the HIV outbreak investigation, following a request by the Indiana State Department of Health. Support staff from CDC are conducting laboratory testing and assisting the state and local health departments with contacting individuals who may have been exposed to HIV.

State, local and federal officials are responding to the outbreak through several other measures, including a One-Stop Shop for services at the Community Outreach Center in Austin, a weekly HIV testing and treatment clinic, a needle exchange program and a public awareness campaign called You Are Not Alone.

The Scott County Health Department began a needle exchange program earlier this month at the Community Outreach Center. Local officials were permitted to do this as the result of an executive order issued by Gov. Mike Pence on March 26, temporarily suspending Indiana Code and making needle exchanges legal in Scott County.

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 also are provided with thick plastic boxes called sharps containers to collect needles after they are used. Participants are asked to bring their used needles to exchange for clean ones.

Since opening April 4, the needle exchange program has provided 5,322 clean syringes to 86 participants. Approximately 1,400 used syringes have been returned to the Community Outreach Center by participants in the exchange and other community members.

As participation in the needle exchange program continues, health officials expect the number of needles returned to more closely match the number of syringes provided.

“This community has been dealing with used syringes being tossed in yards and public areas for a long time, but I want to stress that it’s not safe to pick up syringes unless you have received proper training at one of the community cleanup events and have appropriate protective equipment,” Adams said. “If you see a syringe, I urge you to please call Scott County dispatch (812-752-5550) and let them know exactly where it is located so they can come collect it.”

Two groups recently spent a few hours going around different parts of Austin picking up used needles. On April 11, a team of 31 volunteers recovered 25 syringes. The next day, a group of 33 people found 26 more syringes.

Other community cleanup events are being planned. For updates, “like” the Take Back Scott County Facebook page at facebook.com/TakeBackScottCo.

In an effort to reach more community members, the Scott County Health Department also began operating a mobile needle exchange out of a sport utility vehicle earlier this week. The mobile unit will be in the community daily from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m., staffing and weather permitting.

At a glance

The Community Outreach Center, 2277 W. Frontage Road, Austin, has extended its hours a couple days a week. It is open from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday, Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday; 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesday and Friday; and noon to 6 p.m. Sunday. Grace Covenant Church is providing free shuttle service to and from Austin by calling 317-617-2223.

The One-Stop Shop at the Community Outreach Center 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 in 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—HIP 2.0—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. Use #INstopHIV to follow the outbreak response on Twitter.

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Zach Spicer is a reporter for The (Seymour) Tribune. He can be reached at zspicer@tribtown.com or 812-523-7080.