The Kanawha County Commission on Monday asked the state’s U.S. senators to request a formal congressional inquiry into reports from representatives with the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that say Kanawha County is suffering “the most concerning” HIV outbreak in the country tied to injected drug use.
Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., sent his request to Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the CDC, Monday. Manchin requested the CDC respond to the Kanawha County Commission by Friday.
The congressional inquiry request was sparked by a letter from the commission expressing concern over the data, specifically if it was collected “without factual and empirical evidence.”
Kanawha County Commission President Kent Carper said he hoped the CDC would provide the data as well as an explanation of how the agency, or its researchers, determined the HIV crisis in Kanawha County is “the most concerning” in the country.
“All I know is this particular study, presentation, whatever you want to call it, needs to be fully explained to the public because it’s being used to an end that I’m not so sure people understand. We need to know what it means,” Carper said. “If the science is here, the evidence is here, then we know we need to do something about it.
“I think the public needs to have a clear understanding of something this important. If everything is as it seems, then our question should be able to be answered very quickly: these are the facts, here is the data and this is why the CDC has determined that Kanawha County is the most concerning in the country for HIV outbreaks.”
CDC representatives initially presented this information to members of the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department’s HIV Task Force in January at the request of Charleston Mayor Amy Shuler Goodwin’s office. A second presentation was held a week later for members of the city’s public safety committee as they moved forward discussing legislation that would limit the operations of syringe service programs.
There were a total of 44 HIV cases confirmed in Kanawha County in 2020, 36 of which were tied to injected drug use, according to the state. These were more than double the rates from 2019, when there were 29 total cases identified with only 15 tied to IV drug use.
Until 2018, the average number of HIV cases in Kanawha County tied to IV drug use was just two annually, according to health officials.
“So if this is happening, what are [CDC officials] going to do about it? I thought they’d be in here with tremendous resources, ready to go, but that hasn’t been the case,” Carper said. “The CDC has never bothered to contact the elected officials of this county. They haven’t.”
The county commission’s request was made the same day Charleston City Council was expected to discuss a bill that would ban syringe distribution by unauthorized groups in Charleston.
Medical experts agree that syringe service programs, when run on a needs-based framework, help reduce bloodborne disease spread tied to needle sharing, and when operated as part of wrap-around harm reduction services can help prevent fatal overdoses and transition more people into recovery.
“People often trail off when they bring up the rest of it, the drug use. I understand, concede and agree that we need to be careful about dehumanizing drug users and vulnerable people, but on the other hand, we can’t have the flip side,” Carper said. “The flip side is the public is left with the perception that there is, across the board, a huge HIV outbreak in Kanawha County. If there is, we need to know about that. If it’s a small segment in the population, we need to know that too.”