The Indiana Democratic Party filed a formal complaint with the state’s public access counselor asking for Gov. Mike Pence to explain why he took 65 days to respond to the HIV outbreak in Scott County this summer, according to a press release from the IDP.
Gov. Mike Pence declared a public health emergency in Scott County on March 26, 2015, when the number of confirmed cases reached 79. In a typical year, the county reported a maximum of five cases.
Less than one month after the health emergency, a one-stop shop opened in Scott County to offer resources to HIV-infected people.
Three days after the one-stop shop was ordered, a needle exchange program was approved, which allows people to bring dirty needles to health officials and exchange them for clean ones.
Gov. Mike Pence opposed the needle exchange program as part of an anti-drug policy, but the state General Assembly approved a needle exchange program if counties can prove they are in the midst of a public health emergency linked to intravenous drug use.
The IDP asked Pence to release all communication regarding the outbreak in August 2015, but the request has remained idle in the statehouse, according to the press release.
“With the state’s timeline leaving many questions unanswered, Hoosier families want to be sure the Pence administration took appropriate and timely action,” IDP Chairman John Zody said in the release. The initial outbreak slowed following the opening of the one-stop shop and the beginning of the needle exchange program. No new cases were reported until last week.
The newest increase brings the total number of confirmed cases in the outbreak to 188, according to a Feb. 1 press release from the Indiana State Department of Health. Most of the confirmed cases can be linked to sharing needles among intravenous drug users.
The IU School of Medicine announced Feb. 1 they received a supplemental grant to study the best way to respond to HIV outbreaks in rural settings, such as Austin, Indiana.
The research group is planning to study how to engage patients in HIV care and retain them throughout the process, said Diane Janowicz, assistant professor of clinical medicine in IU School of Medicine, Division of Infectious Diseases.
“Once they establish that first visit, the most important thing thereafter is retaining care,” Janowicz said. “We want to make sure they come back for appointments and fulfill their medications.”
The research study will also enroll those who are at risk of HIV infection in Scott County, including those who use intravenous drugs, are the partner of an HIV positive patient or are partners with someone of an unknown HIV status.
Researchers will follow at-risk participants throughout the course of the two-year study and see how they are affected by or related to the outbreak in Scott County.
“It’s really about how we can influence them to improve care in a rural setting,” Janowicz said.
Since the outbreak in Scott County, three other Indiana counties have been approved for a needle exchange program, including Madison, Fayette and Monroe counties. As many as 15 other counties are considering requests for a needle exchange program of their own.
State Health Commissioner Jerome Adams declared a public health emergency in Monroe County in December 2015, which will run for a full year.
During the past five years, the number of hepatitis C cases has risen over 50 percent, according to an emergency declaration written by Monroe County Health Commissioner Thomas Sharp in August.