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Southern Indiana Town Inches Towards Help, Hope in Light of HIV Outbreak

Promotion for HIV Clinic in Austin, Ind.
Ja'Nel Johnson

On the first day of its new HIV clinic, the Community Outreach Center in Austin, Ind., is quiet.

Rows of chairs line the lobby. Health care providers walk in and out of  doors that lead to private testing areas, treatment resources and other services. The makeshift center is dubbed a One- Stop Shop, sanctioned and overseen by the Indiana State Department of Health.

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A 39-year-old woman named Leona walks into the clinic with a male companion. Leona tested negative for HIV earlier in the week, but now she’s bringing a friend in for testing. She said she knows more than two dozen people who have been diagnosed with HIV in the last several weeks.

“I got a lot of friends right now that’s got it, and it’s killing 'em. And it makes me cry because they made a mistake,” said Leona, who asked that her last name not be used.

She grew up in Scott County and now lives in a nearby town, a move prompted by her effort to kick a years-old drug addiction. "I've tried everything from A to Z," she said.

Her story is not unique. She said she was in a lot of pain following a leg injury. She got hooked on hydrocodone. When she could no longer get a prescription, she began using another painkiller—Opana—intravenously.

And in an illustration of just how a virus like HIV can spread through a small community like Scott County, Leona said it’s possible she used a dirty needle in the past.

“When you sit around your people and you’re getting high sometimes you nod out and you lay your needle down and don’t think that they’re not going to grab it," Leona said.

Amanda Turney,  an Indiana State health department spokeswoman, said the primary goal is to go two weeks without new HIV cases being identified or diagnosed.

Scott County, Indiana, has gained national attention since Gov. Mike Pence declared a public health emergency because of a HIV outbreak related to intravenous drug use. More than 80 people have tested HIV positive in the county, and the state began a 30-day needle exchange program Saturday to contain the spread of the virus.

“All of the cases identified have been tied to Scott County and they all have been tied to injection drug use," Turney said. "Obviously the possibility contains that they can be transmitted through sexual transmission and we’re also identifying and working those contacts in other communities as well."

In order to do that, some of the county’s most vulnerable citizens need to get to a clinic to get tested. That’s where church member and volunteer Milton Engebretson comes in.

On a recent weekday, Engebretson sipped a cup of coffee at a Huddle House during a break from promoting the clinic and offering free rides in his church's van. He'll transport anyone in need of a ride. So far this afternoon, there are no takers.

“I talked to Police Chief Spicer and he said they’re in hiding right now, the people who need to get on board," Engebretson said.

Why? He believes it's fear that keeps addicts or promiscuous folks from getting tested.

"That’s why I’m here to pick em’ up," he said.

He has seen the rampant drug abuse and prostitution in Austin. He's prayed for something to change. Now, he sees more people in the community getting involved.

Still, he hears people expressing shame over the current situation.

“People are very embarrassed to say they’re from Austin. They’re hurt. They want to run and hide,” Engebretson said.

And on this afternoon, they are succesfully hiding. Undeterred, Engebretson finishes his coffee, hops in the church van and heads out on a mission to clean up his community.

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