AUSTIN — Scott County residents can exchange used needles with immunity through at least April 25, as state and local officials are hoping to curb what has been labeled as the largest outbreak of drug-spread HIV in Indiana history.
With 84 confirmed and five preliminary cases of HIV being reported in the county, Indiana State Health Commissioner Dr. Jerome Adams detailed Saturday the start of a needle exchange program based in Austin, a small town of 4,200 residents about 40 miles north of Louisville.
The needle exchange is part of what Adams called a comprehensive plan to address the spread of HIV and other diseases such as hepatitis by opening a “one-stop shop.”
Gov. Mike Pence approved the 30-day program through executive order, as Scott County residents will be able to exchange needles at the community outreach center anonymously and without fear of prosecution through at least April 25.
“While [Pence] has been clear that he does not support needle exchange as anti-drug policy on an ongoing basis, he’s been equally clear about his concern over this outbreak, and has taken a critical step to end this outbreak by allowing this needle exchange to occur,” Adams said less than an hour before the center opened Saturday morning.
Pence declared a public health emergency in Scott County last month upon the advice of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Indiana State Department of Health, which labeled the outbreak an epidemic.
In addition to the needle exchange, the center offers free HIV screening, substance abuse referrals and vaccinations against tetanus and Hepatitis A and B. Those who participate in the exchange will receive enough needles to last for one week, and will have an opportunity to learn about substance abuse treatment.
“The goal is a clean syringe for each injection use,” Scott County Public Health Nurse Brittany Combs said.
Participants in the program also will be able to sign-up for public health insurance and receive a free identification card if needed.
Adams stressed individuals shouldn’t feel ashamed to ask for help, or to seek HIV testing. He also asked for the community’s continued understanding of the importance in treating those who are infected or that may be at-risk of contracting HIV.
“If we don’t pay close attention to what’s going on here, we’re going to be doomed to repeat it throughout all of Indiana, and our country,” Adams said.
Amy Reel, public affairs director for the Indiana Department of Health, said the Scott County cases are believed to be the largest drug-spread HIV outbreak in state history.
Austin Mayor Doug Campbell pledged the town’s support for the state-led response. When asked if the needle exchange program could lead to any additional safety issues in the community, authorities said they were more concerned with educating the public and dispelling myths about the spread of HIV.
“We’re making every effort we can to make it a safer place for everyone,” Austin Police Chief Donald Spicer said.
While the full Statehouse has yet to approve the program, an Indiana House committee accepted a needle-exchange measure last month. But the 30-day executive order permitting needle exchanges in Scott County could still extend beyond April 25.
Adams said he will monitor the situation with Pence to determine if additional measures — including extending the needle exchange program — are needed.
State leaders “want to see the curve bending” in terms of the frequency of confirmed HIV cases before pulling the executive order, Adams said.
The center is located at 2277 W. Frontage Road in Austin, and will be open from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Saturday, and noon to 6 p.m. on Sundays.
The center will be closed for Easter, April 5.
Grace Covenance Church is providing free shuttle service to and from the center, and a ride can be arranged by calling 317-617-2223.