INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — An SUV staffed with health workers on a quest to provide clean needles to intravenous drug users has begun making the rounds in a small Indiana city at the center of an HIV outbreak, officials said Tuesday.
Brittany Combs, a public health nurse with the Scott County Health Department, said 43 people are now taking part in a needle-exchange program aimed at helping contain the outbreak that's affected more than 100 people in the rural county.
Four of those people joined the program Monday after the SUV stopped at one home in Austin — the city at the heart of the outbreak. Health workers convinced those IV drug users to take part in the anonymous needle-exchange push that provides each participant with a week's supply of syringes.
Combs said those four people told staff they had recently been tested for HIV but were negative for the virus that causes AIDS. The mobile needle-exchange, which is an extension of the county-wide program, operated for only about an hour Monday before heavy rainfall halted the SUV's work for the day.
"If nothing else we saved those four people for this week from having to share needles and possible get HIV," she said during a news conference in Austin.
That SUV will be traveling narrow streets and dead-end streets in Austin in the days ahead to reach more users and help allay lingering, unfounded concerns among some users that they could face arrest if they take part, Combs said.
The 43 needle-exchange participants have received more than 1,500 clean needles and returned 580 used ones. The program began April 4 but had seen only four takers during its first several days until participation picked up.
Gov. Mike Pence temporarily waived Indiana's ban on needle-exchange programs in a March public health emergency order that authorized the program solely for Scott County, and initially only for 30 days for the county about 30 miles north of Louisville, Kentucky.
Scott County typically sees only about five new HIV cases a year. But deputy state health commissioner Jennifer Walthall said the county had 95 confirmed HIV cases and 11 preliminary positives as of Friday and the vast majority of those have been linked to needle-sharing among intravenous drug users.
Health officials say all of those infected either live in Scott County or have ties to it, and most of those who have tested positive for HIV had shared needles while injecting a liquefied form of the prescription painkiller Opana.
Walthall said health officials, including several staffers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention who are on the scene, are uncertain how much larger the outbreak will grow, considering that dozens of people may have shared needles with or had unprotected sex with those already infected.
"We're still early in the investigation process for those cases and all of their contacts," she said Tuesday.
Austin Police Chief Don Spicer said IV drug use and other drug problems have plagued the county for years and those ills will persist even if Opana falls out of favor among local users.
"I don't see this going away and if it does they'll just revert to heroin. Heroin is a little bit cheaper, it's readily available. I mean, it is what it is — it's an animal you can't contain," he said.