Indiana's rural Scott County, currently at the epicenter of an HIV outbreak, received approval Thursday to operate the first needle-exchange program allowed under a new state law.
A needle exchange had already been instated under a temporary public health-emergency executive order issued by Republican Gov. Mike Pence. However, State Epidemiologist Pam Pontones with the Department of Health said at a news conference Thursday that the order is set to expire Sunday and Pence has indicated he will not renew it.
Pence had previously overridden state law and his own anti-drug policies in an effort to help contain HIV infections in the rural, economically depressed community.
Under the new law, county public health departments can operate needle exchanges for one year when there is a declared public health emergency involving drug-related HIV or hepatitis C outbreaks.
“We're going to be here for the long haul,” said Scott County Public Health Nurse Brittany Combs. Since opening March 30, a community outreach center in Austin, Ind., has collected 14,981 used needles and distributed 16,952 new ones, Combs said.
Pontones added that the executive order's expiration does not mean a “hard stop” for the needle exchange.
“We will continue to be here,” she said.
There are now 159 confirmed cases and one preliminary diagnosis of HIV in Scott County, with 95% of those cases related to sharing needles while injecting the painkiller oxymorphone (brand name, Opana). Nearly 90% of those individuals are also infected with hepatitis C.