CDC continues investigation into Kanawha HIV outbreak

Updated: Jun. 8, 2021 at 7:19 PM EDT
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CHARLESTON, W.Va. (WSAZ) - Kanawha County leaders gathered Tuesday to discuss the community’s HIV outbreak for the first time since a team from the CDC arrived to investigate the cause and look for a solution.

The team, which will be in Kanawha County from June 1 through June 25, has set a number of objectives to stop what’s being considered an urgent public health problem.

The effort will include conducting a rapid assessment with injected drug users and key stakeholders to identify what’s allowing HIV to spread and barriers from treatment exist. They will also review, abstract and analyze data from medical records and other relevant sources to understand how to work with services such as community service providers, first responders and substance abuse treatment facilities. Finally, they will review and analyze existing strategies through a series of meetings to better understand behaviors, networks and location of people who inject drugs.

This will be incorporated into a final report with both near-term and long-term recommendations on how to mitigate the outbreak across Kanawha County.

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“They’re trying to determine where the gaps are in services,” West Virginia State Epidemiologist Shannon McBee said. “What barriers they have to getting those services is really important trying to understand their attitudes and beliefs surrounding HIV. Trying to understand where they are so we can reach them where they are actually. This is a very difficult population to reach. HIV outbreaks are extremely complicated and difficult especially when you are dealing with a population that is addicted to drugs, and coming off a pandemic we’ve got our work cut out for us.”

Since January 2019, there have been 66 new confirmed HIV cases in Kanawha County. That includes 44 people who were diagnosed last year and 16 people who have tested positive so far this year. Of the 16 who were diagnosed this year, state data shows 12 of them use injected drugs.

“A lot of services were closed during the pandemic,” McBee said. “There was a lot of fear circulating, people weren’t able to access services, they were isolated in their home. People might have also had access to additional funds that may have fueled their addiction through stimulus checks. We have seen that in other areas of public health response. You know, an increase in overdoses following stimulus checks.”

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The county has already increased its HIV testing efforts through weekly mobile clinics in different areas and partnerships with hospitals and West Virginia Health Right, Kanawha-Charleston Health Department Director Dr. Sherri Young said.

“When you see HIV rates on the rise, you also see syphilis rates on the rise,” Young said. “That is confirmed in our data as well. We are starting to see an up tick in that, so we are going to be adding rapid syphilis testing on site when we do our HIV testing.”

The CDC investigation is also looking for gaps in testing and treatment, McBee said. That includes people who might have missed getting tested while they are in jail, at a soup kitchen or in supported housing programs.

A preliminary report will be given to the county during an exit meeting with the CDC team on June 25, and a final report should be completed in July.

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