Representatives from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention soon will be in Kanawha County to help bolster the region’s response to the growing HIV crisis, Dr. Sherri Young, health officer at the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department, said at the department’s Monday board meeting.
This comes two weeks after the county’s most recent HIV Task Force meeting, where state health officials said Epi-Aid — which is short-term, targeted assistance from the CDC for specific and immediate public health threats — was not necessary for the HIV crisis in Kanawha.
“[Epi-Aid] was already on the table as an option,” Young said. “Through discussions with the agencies and people involved, the state moved forward with the request.”
Until the May 10 HIV Task Force meeting, Charleston city officials believed an Epi-Aid request already had been made to the CDC for Kanawha County. Dr. Ayne Amjad, the state health officer, said that was not the case.
Per CDC guidelines, localities cannot request Epi-Aid without cooperation from the state. After learning a request hadn’t been sent by the state, Charleston Mayor Amy Shuler Goodwin wrote a letter asking the health department to ask the state to formally request Epi-Aid from the CDC.
West Virginia did so on May 17. A response approving the request came from the CDC the next day.
Young said — other than the letter and some discussion — she didn’t know of any specific impetus for the state’s reversal.
Cabell County previously requested Epi-Aid to also deal with HIV and hepatitis spread in the community there. Amjad said the recommendations given by the Epi-Aid team then — such as implementing more testing for HIV and keeping those who need it in care — already are being applied in Kanawha County.
HIV testing events are being held twice a week by the health department, Young said. The average attendance at these events has been about 14 people per an event. Although the turnout isn’t massive, Young said it’s a good sign that people are showing up.
Over the past 15 months, COVID-19 sapped resources from local health departments as staff were reassigned to pandemic response. Testing for HIV and other bloodborne diseases declined. Now, the focus is on getting services back to a baseline while also ensuring people aren’t falling through the cracks.
“We want the public to know we’re giving [HIV response] the same amount of attention it deserves,” Young said. “COVID-19 is not going to hamper our efforts.”
So far in 2021, 13 people in Kanawha County have been diagnosed with HIV, including nine linked to IV drug use, according to the state. The number of HIV cases in the region has been steadily climbing since 2018. Before then, there was an average of 14 HIV cases annually in Kanawha County, with two per year being tied to IV drug use.
CDC representatives on the Epi-Aid team are set to arrive some time “in the next week,” Young said. It’s unclear how large the team will be.
The additional resources from the CDC will help the county “enhance” its HIV response, Young said. Those with the CDC will help analyze the health department’s current response efforts and recommend ways to streamline them or fill service gaps that might be overlooked.
The team also will perform a rapid assessment with people who inject drugs, the most vulnerable population for HIV infection in Kanawha County. This will include conducting interviews with people who use drugs to learn more about their needs and existing barriers to care that could help prevent HIV.
“A lot of the initial recommendations are already underway,” Young said. “When Epi-Aid gets here, the ball is already rolling. It’ll just help us roll it a little faster.