Pence signs expansion of needle-exchange program

One local official sees the benefits of enacting a needle-exchange program in Jackson County.

Another one, though, doesn’t think it’s the right thing to do.

Those thoughts follow Wednesday night’s action by the Indiana General Assembly passing Senate Enrolled Act 461, which allows limited and accountable needle- or syringe-exchange programs where public health emergencies warrant such action.

Gov. Mike Pence said the measure will save lives and also enable the state’s health care and law enforcement officials to address this and future health crises.

As of Tuesday, 7,146 needles have been collected through Scott County’s needle exchange program. That total, however, includes 652 needles collected by the public.

Lin Montgomery, public health coordinator with the Jackson County Health Department, said there hasn’t been a lot of emphasis on a needle exchange program here because officials knew Pence would first have to declare a public health emergency.

In March, he did that for nearby Scott County, trumping state law. It was initially enacted for 30 days but on April 20 was extended another 30 days.

From articles she has read, Montgomery said a program could be a good thing locally. The Indiana State Department of Health recently announced there are at least five new HIV-positive cases in Jackson County.

“We do know there have been studies that have been done and journal articles written on how the needle exchange program is an effective public health strategy,” Montgomery said. “From the public health’s point of view, if we can lower the risk for more people, then it has been proven to be an effective strategy.”

She said there has been conversation in the county about services that could be provided.

She was at a training conference Thursday learning about possibly offering free HIV testing in Seymour. But nothing has been set yet.

“We have to have testers certified with the State Department of Health. Just not everybody can do testing,” Montgomery said. “We’re going through certification so we have a tester in the community.”

Right now, testing supplies are an issue because the demand is so high, Montgomery said.

As of late last week, there are 142 HIV-positive cases — 136 confirmed and six preliminary — in southeastern Indiana. Of the cases in Jackson County, state health officials said contacts have been followed up on and are considered low-risk, and no additional cases of HIV have been related to those reported.

Establishing a testing site would help local health officials determine what the demand is here, Montgomery said.

“We know that we have five positive cases of HIV in Jackson County, which is not the epidemic that Scott County has, but it’s still a concern,” she said. “So we’ve got to determine whether our numbers are going to go up or down if we offer testing.”

Jackson County Sheriff Mike Carothers, on the other hand, doesn’t feel a needle exchange program is a good thing.

“It almost looks as if you’re promoting drug use,” he said. “That’s the view I get when I see that done.”

Carothers said while he realizes there is a drug-use problem in the county, every county in the state has the same problem.

Jackson County officials have been working on establishing a drug court, and Carothers sees that as a way to help combat the drug problem.

If established, the drug court would offer nonviolent drug offenders a chance to enter a judicially supervised program to shake their addiction to drugs.

Carothers said it would get those people on drug testing and monitoring, and would help alleviate overcrowding at the jail in Brownstown.

“I think maybe now would be a very good time to implement that,” Carothers said. “I know in the discussions that we’ve had in our meetings, I think we can get this started for a small amount. It’s not going to be terribly expensive to get this program going. Right now, that’s something we really need to be looking at, and looking at somebody that could foot that bill to do the job there and get the program started.”

Jackson County Circuit Court Judge Richard Poynter has said he would like to submit the drug court plan to the state and have it running by next year. The Jackson County Council would have to OK the funding.

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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.