At a public hearing Friday morning, Monroe County commissioners voted unanimously to uphold health commissioner Thomas Sharp’s declaration of a local public health emergency. The final hurdle before Monroe County can open its own needle exchange program is to gain approval from state health commissioner Jerome Adams.
During an hour of presentations in the Monroe County courthouse, local healthcare providers and representatives from the county’s health department spoke about the immediate need for a needle exchange program. County commissioner Julie Thomas said she fears most residents have no idea the gravity of what’s going on in their community.
“The word ‘emergency’ implies something short-term ... this is a crisis,” she said. “This is a health crisis, and it will be ongoing.”
Monroe County has one of the highest numbers of new Hepatitis C cases in Indiana. In 2009, the Indiana State Department of Health confirmed 63 new cases of Hepatitis C in Monroe County. Last year, it was 138.
In his declaration of a local public health emergency, Sharp called the county’s rising rates of Hepatitis C an epidemic, citing the primary mode of infection as intravenous drug use.
The growing trend mirrors Scott County’s sharp increase of Hepatitis C cases last year, which led to an HIV epidemic. More than 100 people became infected with HIV when they shared used needles to inject Opana, a highly addictive prescription drug.
The increase of Hepatitis C cases among intravenous drug users led to an HIV epidemic in Scott County, Indiana, earlier this year.
“We do not have the capacity or resources here to handle an HIV outbreak,” Thomas said. “It could happen anywhere.”
Earlier this year, Gov. Mike Pence overrode a state law that banned needle exchanges, making it easier for counties to get exchanges up and running. This week, the Monroe County Health Department will put together a proposal to be sent out to the Indiana State Department of Health.
Once he receives the county’s proposal, Adams has a window of 10 days to authorize Monroe County’s needle exchange program.