SIDNEY — The Ohio Department of Health (ODH) has initiated an investigation in Shelby County concerning HIV and viral hepatitis infections among drug users.
The Sidney-Shelby County Health Department (SSCHD), the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office and other local agencies are cooperating and assisting as needed in the effort. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) is providing guidance and technical assistance.
According to Melanie Amato, spokeswoman for the ODH, during a two-week time span, three HIV-positive cases were identified in Shelby County, two of which also tested positive for viral hepatitis.
“Three people showed up in different locations in Shelby County, a rural area,” she said Tuesday. “That was enough to prompt concern.”
Both types of infection may be spread through the high-risk practice of sharing needles and other injection equipment, such as cookers, syringes, rinse water and cotton balls, during drug use. Such infections also can be spread through unsafe sex practices, states a release jointly issued Tuesday morning by SSCHD and ODH.
Shelby County Sheriff John Lenhart said that “a period of time ago” a person who was incarcerated in the county jail here was transferred to the state peniteniary, where the person was routinely tested for a number of diseases. That person was found to be HIV-positive. When someone is diagnosed with AIDS, officials try to trace that person’s contacts with others that might have spread the disease.
“So they got a bunch of names,” said Shelby County Sheriff’s Office Chief Deputy Jim Frey. “They asked if they could come into the jail and compare our jail roster. Last Wednesday, we had two ladies from Allen County who were with infectious disease control with the Ohio Department of Health. We had 15 people that were incarcerated now (that were on their list). Three tested positive for HIV.”
Amato would not confirm that information.
“ODH knows, but it’s confidential due to public health laws,” she said.
The same public health laws have prevented local officials from knowing who the person in the state prison is.
Public health staff interviewed the three people to identify sexual partners and individuals with whom they have shared needles during injection drug use. In a process called “contact tracing,” public health staff are following up with these exposed individuals to offer free testing for HIV and viral hepatitis as well as for syphilis which also may be spread by sharing needles. Individuals who test positive will be given medical treatment options, and drug users will be given substance abuse counseling options.
Frey said the contact tracing has resulted in a list that now contains 45 local names.
“I want to assure Shelby County citizens that the sheriff’s office is doing everything we can to help ODH and CDC,” Lenhart said. He has offered the agencies the services of a detective for the duration of the investigation; however, ODH and CDC at press time had not responded to the offer.
SSCHD Health Commissioner Steve Tostrick also has designated resources to assist.
“The ODH and the CDC felt (the situation) was a concern. We’re trying to streamline as much as possible, helping with communications and giving them office space. We’re doing an emergency-preparedness mini-structure here,” he said. “The SSCHD really appreciates the support of our efforts in this investigation.”
The release reported that there were four newly diagnosed HIV cases in Shelby County in 2014; one, in 2013; none in 2012 or 2011 and two in 2010. In 2014, there were 59 newly diagnosed viral hepatitis.
News of the investigation and risk prompted 56 of the jail’s current 148 inmates to request testing of themselves.
The ODH has issued a health alert to healthcare providers in the region and has enlisted the help of law enforcement, medical facilities, substance abuse centers and those who serve people who are homeless to get the word out about the potential risk the situation poses.
The local health department has set up a secure, private site, “in a location where people would be comfortable,” Tostrick said, for testing members of the public who are concerned that they may be at risk of contracting HIV or hepatitis. People who want to be tested can call the SSCHD at (937) 498-7249 or the state hotline at (800) 332-2437.
Reach the writer at 937-538-4824. Follow her on Twitter @PASpeelmanSDN.