South Carolina’s HIV cases expected to increase due to rising drug use, COVID-19-related sexual activity

Health Watch

A volunteer of the German AIDS trust holds an Red Ribbon in Bonn, western Germany, Thursday, Nov. 27, 2008. (AP Photo/Roberto Pfeil)

DARLINGTON COUNTY, S.C. (WBTW) — Health officials are keeping an eye on an expected rise in HIV cases as heroin use continues to increase throughout South Carolina.

“Our numbers are growing every day,” said Hope McQueen, the program director of care innovations for CareSouth Carolina, which provides HIV primary health care out of Hartsville.

And while she said the HIV epidemic wasn’t entirely put on the backburner because of the pandemic, the collective focus has been on COVID-19 throughout the last year.

“But along with the COVID, the HIV was still rising, and being in quarantine — being home a lot — there was more sexual activities involved, there was more, I would say, drug use involved, needles and things of that sort,” McQueen said. 

It’s something that the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control is keeping an eye on, according to a 2019 report, as numbers indicate that heroin use is on the rise. 

HIV has mostly been spread among men who have sex with men, along with people who inject drugs. Those who have contracted HIV and also inject drugs have generally been a declining population, averaging 18 new cases a year from 2014 to 2018.

“However, the CDC reports Heroin use is on the increase across the US among men and women, most age groups, and all income levels,” the DHEC report reads. “Therefore, the number of cases reporting Injecting Drug Use as a risk for HIV should be closely monitored.

The average number of new cases has been about 767 over the last few years. New treatments have reduced the number of deaths due to AIDS, which has increased the number of people who are currently living with HIV and AIDS, according to the report.

There were 123 AIDS deaths in 2018, a 46% decrease from 229 deaths in 2009.

Of those diagnosed with HIV in South Carolina, men who had sex with men had the highest-reported risk factor. Another 9% injected drugs, and 4% were men who had sex with men and also injected drugs. 

DHEC has identified Horry County as a hotspot for the highest rates of new diagnoses, with between 39.2 to 58.5 new cases per 100,000 people from 2016 to 2018. 

HIV diagnosis numbers for 2020 have not been released. 

DHEC did not respond to an interview request.

Drug overdose deaths have also been increasing across the state. There were 1,131 drug overdose deaths in 2019, compared to 613 in 2013, according to a report from DHEC. Heroin deaths went from 57 in 2014 to 196 in 2019, and is now the second-highest most common drug involved in an overdose death, behind prescription drugs. 

The CareSouth Carolina clinic in Hartsville, which provides free HIV testing and specializes in treating the virus, is currently serving 206 people, according to McQueen. Once diagnosed, the clinic immediately brings the patients in for labs and in to see a doctor. McQueen said the clinic is adamant about getting people who test positive for HIV in as soon as possible. Not all patients are ready to pursue treatment, she said, but the clinic tries to keep in contact with them and explains the importance of getting treated promptly.

The Hartsville clinic specializes in prescribing PrEP and PEP — two preventative medications — and serves patients in Chesterfield, Darlington, Dillon, Lee and Marlboro counties. It also sends out “mobies,” mobile clinics that travel to rural and underserved areas. 

The organization provides transportation to help more patients come in for testing and treatment.

“We try our best to take away any barrier that a patient might have for their better health,” McQueen said. 

She said the clinic’s infectious disease specialist can provide treatment for conditions such as diabetes and hypertension, in addition to AIDS. The clinic also provides behavioral health services.

“The stigma is really bad, and individuals, they are going through something at this time, and they do not want to come in to see the doctor on several visits,” McQueen said.

Medical case managers stay in contact with the patients throughout the process.

“They won’t just tell the patient things that need to be done,” McQueen said. “They will walk with them and they will introduce them to other services that we have as far as behavioral health services.”

She said the staff can help patients who don’t have insurance find available programs to help cover the cost of their care.

As the pandemic continues, McQueen said the focus on HIV treatment and prevention has to stay strong.

“We need to keep this on the frontline, as well,” she said.

To get a free rapid HIV test from CareSouth Carolina, call (843) 339-5527.

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