CHARLESTON, W.Va. — New recommendations released Tuesday by federal, state and local health officials suggest people who inject drugs in West Virginia’s most populous county should have expanded access to syringes, testing and treatment.
The guidance comes as Kanawha County experiences some of the nation’s highest spikes of HIV cases.
A report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the state Department of Health and Human Resources and the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department found there were 63 new intravenous drug-related HIV cases in Kanawha County from January 1, 2019 through May 13, 2021. Before 2019, the average number of such cases in the county was less than five per year.
Shannon McBee, state epidemiologist with the DHHR, said the opioid epidemic coupled with the stress of the COVID-19 pandemic are contributing factors.
“We’re dealing with a worldwide pandemic, which is isolating individuals, creating opportunities for depression and increasing use in substances,” McBee told MetroNews.
A CDC Epi-Aid team did research in Kanawha County and found that high risk individuals are not being tested at various medical facilities.
“The recommendation is to provide wrap-around services at a single location, so that they don’t have to go to multiple appointments or reach out to multiple service providers,” McBee explained.
The report comes amid a new state law that tightens requirements for needle exchange programs.
McBee said there needs to be more innovative ways to reach those affected. Some health care providers are already working to do their part.
“Health Right is doing a great job of accessing this population and offering wrap-around services, but we need more providers to step up and assist with this outbreak,” McBee said.
The CDC is suggesting HIV testing become more widely available in other counties across West Virginia. McBee confirmed Kanawha is the only county to report a HIV outbreak.
“This is a national issue. Heightened risk does exist through West Virginia and central Appalachia. It’s not limited to Charleston or Kanawha County,” she said.