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A Year After Outbreak, Indiana County Still Struggles With HIV, Drugs

Ja'Nel Johnson

It's been a year since the Indiana State Department of Health declared a public health emergency in Scott County, Indiana, after dozens of people were diagnosed HIV-positive. The outbreak was related to intravenous use of a drug called Opana.

The number of confirmed HIV cases in the county is nearly 200, including 16 new cases since July.

WFPL News recently caught up with a few people who were at the heart of providing much-needed health services to people in Austin. Here's what they have to say about life in Scott County a year later.

(You can listen to the full story in the player above.)

Dr. William Cooke is the only physician in Austin. He started an HIV clinic last year at his practice, Family Foundations Medicine. Since then, Cooke said he has treated about 120 HIV patients.

"Before last year we had nothing. We had no access at all to any sort of recovery-oriented care, for any behavioral health issues. Nothing in Austin at all. And now, we're seeing those resources finally start to develop."

Brittany Combs is the public health nurse at the Scott County Health Department. She designed Scott County's needle exchange program in response to the HIV outbreak. Combs said the county is still in regular contact with the Indiana State Department of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"They help tremendously, but it's something that we as a county have to do. We have to take care of ourselves long-term. That was the emergency part, and now we have to step up and take care of our community in that way."

Milton Engebretson is a concerned citizen. Last year, he drove his church's van around town transporting people to Austin's Community Outreach Center, where they could be tested for HIV, sign up for insurance, and exchange used needles for clean ones. He's no longer driving the church van, but he can be found around Austin looking to help people get treatment for their addiction.

"I got deeply depressed over that. All I kept on hearing was 'well, it's supposed to stop the spread of AIDS.' But I didn't see that. I was seeing that we were just adding to their addiction, so I never really got on board. I abided what the law was, but I wasn't on board. I still pick people up, and I started talking to them about dealing with their addiction — the ones who would listen. And out of all of the people I picked up, I had two people who wanted help."

Jenny is a 37-year-old woman in Austin. She is HIV-positive and addicted to Opana. Jenny became homeless last month, after her mother died. She and her siblings, who also live with substance abuse disorders, were evicted from the house they shared with their mother. Jenny said she began using OxyContin about eight years ago and eventually started using Opana.

"I need rehab. I need to change my life. When I get out of rehab, I need to get out, get myself a job. Build myself up to my own house, my own car. Have a life again. Be happy like I used to be. I used to have it all. Now, I have nothing."

Read more:
A Day in the Southern Indiana Town Battling an HIV Outbreak

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