INDIANAPOLIS — Gov. Mike Pence today declared a public health emergency in Scott County due to an outbreak of HIV that health officials warn will continue to spread quickly.

Pence's order calls for multiple state agencies to respond to the outbreak, which includes sending more resources to Scott County. His plan allows for a “targeted, short-term” needle-exchange, something that local health officials had requested.

So far, 79 cases of HIV have been confirmed in Scott County since December. All are linked to contaminated needles shared among intravenous drug users, according to state health officials, who've warned that the virus is also spreading by sexual contact.

Typically, the county would see fewer than five new cases of HIV in a year.

“We expect that number to go up,” Pence said at a press conference Thursday. “This is about health and lives.”

Pence's executive order calls on the state health officials to set up a command center to coordinate HIV and substance abuse treatment, and it requires cooperation among state and local health, law enforcement and emergency response agencies, as well as hospitals and health care providers.

In addition, the state health department will set up a mobile, one-stop shop to help people enroll in the state's Medicaid program, Healthy Indiana Plan 2.0, while also offering vaccinations and providing other information.

“People who may have been exposed to the virus should know the costs of testing and cost of treatment is no barrier to you.” Pence said. “It will be covered by Medicaid HIP 2.0. Help is available.”

Pence's order, which he issued at the recommendation of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, also authorizes Scott County officials to take actions they deem necessary to respond to the epidemic, including implementing a short-term needle exchange to contain the epidemic.

“I do not support needle exchange as an anti-drug policy,” he said. “This is a crisis.”

Pence said the program will only last 30 days and that he opposes implementing it elsewhere. He said the state is following CDC recommendations on authorizing the program in Scott County.

Pence noted that, by law, he can only authorize emergency action for 30 days. The governor said he "prayed about it” before making the decision to allow a needle-exchange.

In addition, state health officials are launching a regional public awareness campaign, called “You Are Not Alone,” that will focus on drug treatment, infection prevention, safe sex, needle disposal and HIV testing and treatment.

The three-month advertising and social media campaign will urge people to contact an HIV services hotline or addiction hotline for local treatment and care.

Pence met with CDC officials on Monday and visited Scott County on Wednesday to talk with local leaders, health professionals and concerned citizens about the HIV outbreak and the state's response.

"Scott County is facing an epidemic of HIV, but this is not a Scott County problem, this is an Indiana problem,” Pence said in a statement. “The people of Scott County are working hard to address this crisis, and with additional state resources and new tools provided by this emergency declaration, I am confident that together we will stop this HIV outbreak in its tracks.”

For more information, call the HIV assistance hotline 866-588-4948 and the Addiction Hotline at 800-662-HELP (4357).

Maureen Hayden covers the Statehouse for CNHI's Indiana newspapers.

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