Updated Thursday, May 21 at 11:15 a.m.
On Thursday, State Health Commissioner Jerome Adams issued a year-long public health emergency for Scott County, which will allow the county to continue to operate its needle exchange during the emergency period. Health officials announced also announced Thursday that 160 people had tested positive for HIV so far, and 100 more contacts still need to be located and offered testing.
At a public hearing Wednesday, Scott County commissioners passed a motion 3-0 to authorize a needle exchange for a year.
Scott County is the epicenter of an ongoing HIV outbreak in southern Indiana. As of Monday, 158 people had tested positive for the virus, mostly due to injection drug abuse. To help stem the spread of the virus, health workers in Scott County have been operating a temporary needle exchange, where drug users can trade in dirty needles for clean ones.
No one at the hearing stood up to speak against the needle exchange.
Critics of needle exchanges say that they enable drug users, while public health experts cite evidence that exchanges prevent the spread of infections such as hepatitis C and HIV. Brittany Combs, the county’s public health nurse, was surprised by the lack of opposition to keeping the exchange long-term.
“I was expecting at least a few people from the community to come and maybe speak against it,” she says. “But we had plenty of back-up here today. Lots and lots of people came to support us, and that’s what we wanted the commissioners especially to see.”
Needle exchanges in Indiana were illegal until recently. Gov. Mike Pence signed an emergency order in March allowing Scott County to operate an exchange on a temporary basis. And at the close of this year’s legislative session, lawmakers passed a bill that would allow individual counties to request a needle exchange, if they go through a multistep process.
The public hearing was the last step the county needed to take before the request goes before State Health Commissioner Jerome Adams.
Adams is expected to authorize the year-long exchange. The emergency order currently allowing the exchange to operate is set to expire May 24.