Dr. William Cooke knew he wanted to practice medicine in a rural town. He’s been a physician in Austin, Indiana, for 10 years—and he’s the only physician in town.
“I went there specifically to bring access to care,” he said.
Austin is in Scott County, which is at the center of national focus because of an HIV outbreak attributed to intravenous drug use.
To meet the crisis, Cooke is providing a much-needed free HIV clinic for the small city of about 4,300 people. So far, more than 80 people Scott County have tested positive for HIV since the end of the year.
On Tuesday, Cooke and his team at Foundations Family Medicine opened an HIV clinic in their existing office in Austin, about 40 miles north of Louisville. They were joined by representatives from the Indiana State Department of Health, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Indiana Family and Social Service Administration and local health departments.
On its first day, about 30 people stopped by the HIV clinic either for testing or to initiate HIV treatment, he said. All of the services and care were provided free of charge.
“The people of Austin deserve to have their own clinic to get treatment from and not require them to travel to Louisville or Indianapolis,” he said.
Cooke said he wants the clinic to be a resource for people who are seeking treatment for HIV or substance abuse.
Last week, Gov. Mike Pence declared a public health emergency because of the HIV outbreak; since then the Indiana State Department of Health has begun arranging a 30-day needle exchange program.
Dr. Jerome Adams, Indiana’s health commissioner, said the state is considering setting up needle exchanges at local health departments and doctor’s offices.
“We want to do it in a way that’s actually safe for the community and that people will actually come to. They’re not going to come to the middle of the town square and exchange needles,” Adams said.
Adams said it is important that needle exchange programs are operated properly, which includes an environment with a health care professional who can be a bridge to therapy, treatment, health insurance and other services.
“Needle exchange programs are not paraphernalia in and of itself, but it’s important that it be part of a comprehensive package and that the community is involved and embraces the program so that it can be functional,” Adams said.
Adams said the agency has to contact more than 200 people who may be unaware that they could be HIV positive.
Cooke said he wants to spread a message of hope to the people of Austin. He and a colleague recently walked around the town to connect with former and current addicts to let them know about the HIV clinic, and to ask them about their struggles with addiction.
Cooke has plans to open a behavioral health and addiction center in Austin as well as specialty clinics for diabetes, physical therapy and cardiology. He’s also trying to recruit a pediatrician.
The HIV clinic will run every Tuesday for the foreseeable future, Cooke said.