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The latest COVID-19 surge in West Virginia, where active cases hit 28,000 Tuesday, is straining resources needed to respond to Kanawha County’s HIV outbreak and other health crises, officials say.

“The key players and partners in COVID-19 response are also essential individuals in HIV response, so we’re trying to juggle a lot of priorities,” state epidemiologist Shannon McBee said. “People are diverted to help with cases; it affects every facet of the response.”

The Kanawha-Charleston Health Department’s HIV task force met Tuesday under new state leadership for the first time since July. A U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report released in August called for increased access to sterile syringes, among other recommendations, to control the HIV spread.

A town hall planned for last month to discuss the CDC’s recommendations was called off because of COVID-19 and has not been rescheduled. A task force meeting scheduled last month was canceled with little notice. State Health and Human Resources spokeswoman Andrea Lannom blamed that on state health officer Dr. Ayne Amjad being unable to attend.

Allison Adler, communications director for the agency, last week cited turnover.

Kanawha-Charleston Health Department Executive Director Dr. Sherri Young transitioned to an interim role in July after announcing her resignation in June. The department’s spokeswoman and chief of staff also have resigned. Since June, two new members and a new chairman have been named to the agency’s board

In the two months since the task force last met, there have been 14 new HIV cases diagnosed in Kanawha County, bringing the total to 39 this year, with 29 tied to intravenous drug use. Before 2018, the yearly average for HIV cases in the county was 14, with fewer than four tied to injected drug use. Forty of 44 new cases in Kanawha in 2020 involved IV drug use.

Of 80 people still living after being diagnosed with HIV in Kanawha since Jan. 1, 2019, 25 were virally suppressed, as of their last test, and 21 are still engaged in care, McBee reported.

Local health agencies are working to expand testing and treatment options.

Dr. Christine Teague, executive director of Charleston Area Medical Center’s Ryan White Program, said her team is hiring staff to help with peer recovery and early intervention.

Cabin Creek Health Systems is operating a full-service mobile health unit, offering HIV, hepatitis and COVID-19 screening, said Dr. Jessica McColley, head of medical services. The mobile unit also is prescribing pre-exposure prophylaxis, a drug commonly referred to as PrEP that protects people who are at high risk for HIV.

West Virginia Health Right’s mobile unit “has made a huge difference,” said Clinical and Pharmacy Coordinator Rhonda Francis.

“It’s getting our team out there, and once you develop that relationship and they trust you, they’ll come to you with other things, as well,” Francis said.

The free clinic also is preparing to expand HIV, hepatitis and COVID-19 testing to five rural counties to be named at a later date.

Small rural counties frequently lack the infrastructure and expertise to conduct regular HIV screening or provide treatment. Twenty-eight of the state’s 55 counties are among the nation’s 220 most vulnerable to HIV outbreaks tied to IV drug use.

The state has launched a website offering HIV information at http://HIVAwareWV .org. State officials also are finalizing rules under a law passed last session limiting needle exchange programs. The new restrictions narrow options for health officials to restrain the HIV outbreak.

Joe Deegan, of Thomas Health System’s Addiction Healing Center at Saint Francis Hospital, is trying to navigate those broadly written laws himself. He said there are ongoing talks at the hospital about running a syringe service program there.

“But we have to look at state rules to see how we would go about setting something like that up,” he said.

Caity Coyne covers health. She can be reached at 304-348-7939 or Follow @CaityCoyne on Twitter.

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