A biohazard container for the temporary disposal of needles and other sharp objects is pictured at Grace Covenant Church of God in downtown Austin following an HIV/AIDS training for local and state law enforcement and jail staff by the Midwest AIDS Training and Education Center on Wednesday afternoon. State health officials are working to equip local law enforcement with these containers and other safety equipment, such as stick-resistant gloves, in response to the current HIV outbreak in Scott County. Staff photo by Christopher Fryer
A biohazard container for the temporary disposal of needles and other sharp objects is pictured at Grace Covenant Church of God in downtown Austin following an HIV/AIDS training for local and state law enforcement and jail staff by the Midwest AIDS Training and Education Center on Wednesday afternoon. State health officials are working to equip local law enforcement with these containers and other safety equipment, such as stick-resistant gloves, in response to the current HIV outbreak in Scott County. Staff photo by Christopher Fryer
AUSTIN — As an HIV epidemic grips Scott County in southeastern Indiana, education might be the most important weapon to combat the nearly 1,400 percent increase in cases of the virus over the past three months.

A team of Midwestern AIDS specialists visited Austin on Wednesday to help dispel myths and encourage Scott County officials and residents that they’re not alone in dealing with the worst HIV outbreak in Indiana’s history.

For the first time, the Midwest AIDS Training and Education Center descended on Scott County — with a team in each of its service states, the center typically targets areas of high HIV-incidents in Indiana such as Marion, Lake and Vanderburgh counties — at the outbreak’s epicenter in Austin.

“So this has been a unique situation all together, and it hasn’t really been a call to train clinicians — it’s been a call to train the community and get good information out there because there’s just a lot of fear — fear of the unknown,” Malinda Boehler, Midwest AIDS Training and Education Center [MATEC] director, told a roomful of law enforcement and jail staff at Grace Covenant Church.

“I think this happening here, you realize it can happen anywhere. There’s a lot of towns like Austin, there are a lot of counties like Scott County.”

Those on the frontlines are doing all they can to educate themselves about HIV.

“A lot of misinformation is out there about whether they could contract [HIV] through getting spat upon or if they could contract it through getting bit or sweat or those types of things,” Scott County Prosecuting Attorney Jason Mount said. “So they had those types of questions they wanted to get answered.”

Though the recent uptick in cases — from around an annual average of five to 78 confirmed at the latest count — was a new and unexpected side effect of rampant drug abuse, the community is linking arms to handle the epidemic as best they can.

“You all are doing a lot of things right because Hepatitis [C] has been in this community for quite some time with all the [intravenous] drug use, and you’ve managed to keep yourself safe,” Boehler said. “So you’re doing the right thing.”

While the HIV outbreak has shone the national spotlight on rural Indiana’s drug crisis, experts Wednesday said Scott County has the backbone to stem the spread of the virus, which causes AIDS.

“So the No. 1 one thing I would encourage you to do is to take a deep breath and relax because it’s going to be OK, because you all are smart,” said Dr. Neil Propst, a Marion County Jail psychiatrist and infectious disease specialist, who worked with MATEC Wednesday.

Scott County has received an extra boost with Gov. Mike Pence’s public health emergency declaration last week. The executive order established a “one-stop shop” where residents can get forms of identification made to sign up for health insurance, receive vaccinations for IV drug-related diseases and soon be able to exchange dirty needles for clean ones.

Amy Reel, spokeswoman for the Indiana State Department of Health, said she has seen “amazing coordination” among local partners with the state.

“I’ve been really impressed with the existing network when we came down,” Reel said. “And sometimes you have to build things from the ground up when you go into a community, and that’s not the case here. We think that’s going to help a lot.”

MATEC handed out free biohazard containers for dirty needles and told law enforcement that the state will reimburse them for the purchase of stick-resistent gloves.

Propst also told the officers what to do in situations when they may be exposed to HIV. Jail staff may come into contact with bodily fluids, and he said the best way to consistently minimize the spread of infection is to assume all inmates are infected.

“When an exposure happens, the person needs to be looked at immediately,” he said. “It’s hours, not days.”

He also said preparedness in handling HIV and potential HIV cases doesn’t go away.

“Once you kind of got HIV in your community, you’ve kind of got HIV in the community,” Propst said. “And so even after all the excitement kind of dies down, we’re still going to have these people in our community that have this illness.”

Boehler, who has been working in the HIV/AIDS field for 17 years, also told law enforcement officers that contracting HIV isn’t as easy as being sneezed on.

“These are still your friends, your neighbors, people who live near you,” she said. “They didn’t all the sudden turn into people who want to infect you with HIV overnight.”

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