‘People will share needles’: Former addict worried Scott County will see HIV spike after needle exchange nixed

On Wednesday, county commissioners voted to dissolve the program on January 1, 2022, and put a more "recovery-driven" program in its place.
Published: Jun. 3, 2021 at 5:54 PM EDT|Updated: Jun. 3, 2021 at 9:26 PM EDT
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SCOTT COUNTY, Ind. (WAVE) - The needle exchange program in Scott County is coming to a close.

The program will fold on January 1, 2022, following a two-to-one vote during a county commissioners meeting on Wednesday evening.

Both commissioners who voted to end the program — Mike Jones (District 2) and Randy Julian (District 1) — expressed concerns at Wednesday night’s meeting, stating they believed it caused more drug use and overdoses when other treatment options are available for addicts.

“Our mortality rate’s going up,” Julian told WAVE 3 News Thursday. “HIV and Hepatitis can be treated, but you can’t bring anybody back from their dead. Just because we give them needles, doesn’t mean they’re still not sharing. That’s a myth if anybody thinks that.”

After an outbreak of HIV in Indiana due to drug abuse and addicts sharing infected needles, former Gov. Mike Pence launched the needle exchange program in 2015. It marked the first time the state provided addicts with clean needles.

County Health Administrator Michelle Matern, who supports the program, told WAVE 3 News in 2015, at the height of the outbreak, Scott County saw 157 new cases of HIV. She said in 2020, in the program’s fifth year in existence, the number of new cases dropped to just one.

“When you look at other counties in our rural area of the state, we have the highest number of people who live here with HIV,” Matern said. “That’s not going to change by January 1. So the need for the program is still here. Injection drug use happens everywhere. We just happen to have an HIV problem on top of that. So those two combinations is what we’re most worried about after January 1.”

Others in the county, like Jesse Barger and Samantha Williams, worry about the people who are still on the streets, using drugs.

“Disease is still here,” Barger said. “That’s obvious. And people will share needles.”

Barger told WAVE 3 News he began using drugs in 2015, at the height of the outbreak. He said the needle exchange program and the people who worked there helped him find a gateway to recovery.

“At one point in my life I didn’t care if I lived or died,” Barger said. “All I wanted to do was live to get high. If that program would not have been there, I don’t know that I would’ve got clean.”

Williams said the program helped her find a glimmer of hope to eventually get her life on the right track. She contracted Hepatitis C during the outbreak but said the needle-exchange program helped her get sober and get her disease under control

“You know, I have my car; I have a home; I have my first full-time job ever, that I’ve ever had,” Williams said through tears.

Julian said he and other county leaders plan to open a 24-hour recreation center that will address patients’ mental health and attempt to steer them towards sobriety without providing them with needles.

In the event resources are not set up in time, the needle exchange’s end date may be pushed back.

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