CHARLESTON, W.Va. — An opportunity for more outreach as well as more hope has come for Kanawha County’s’ ongoing battle with the HIV crisis.

The Charleston Area Medical Center’s Ryan White Program that provides HIV care to over 500 people infected or at-risk for the disease around the region received its very own mobile unit to further extend that care and better meet people where they are.

CAMC was able to acquire the new unit through a $275,000 Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) grant given by the State Bureau for Behavioral Health.

CAMC Ryan White Program Director Kristine Teague said the grant has also given them the ability to expand its services to not just HIV care, but to other issues the region faces that is often closely linked with the disease.

“Now, we’re able to offer comprehensive primary medical and support care to people living with Substance Use Disorder all throughout the Kanawha County area,” said Teague. “It’s one of several mobile units that SAMHSA has funded for Substance Use Disorder services this year.”

For the past four years now, the program has been making the effort to extend out into the community and provide the care, first by providing outreach on a cargo van to Charleston areas in 2020, and then to utilizing CAMC’s mobile medical unit last year.

The mobile team involved with the program includes a medical provider, a nurse specialist, linkage to care coordinator, a case manager, a phlebotomist and a pharmacist who oversees between 25 to 30 patients on a weekly basis.

During the mobile visits, patients are seen by a nurse practitioner and receives personal hygiene and bleach kits, condoms, wound care and vaccines, and may have lab work done, as well. In addition, they receive 7 days worth of HIV, Hepatitis C and mental health medications, along with food and harm reduction counseling.

Exam room on mobile unit

Teague said the mobile bus serves a crucial role in treating HIV patients, because otherwise, it can be a challenge to get services to the most under-resourced people.

“Whether that’s because of housing instability or transportation issues, we learned very quickly early on that it is important to go to where people are and give those services in the communities,” she said.

Teague said for the past few years, an increase in homelessness, substance use disorders, and the exchange of needles has led to the spread of HIV and other diseases.

However, she said through the Ryan White Program’s mobile services, about 40% of people involved in the county’s HIV outbreak have been seen on the bus who were unable to come to the clinic for whatever reason.

Teague continued to say that in Kanawha County, they reduced the number of outbreaks from a peak of 46 in 2021 down to just 11 last year– marking a 76% reduction rate.

She said she believes the reason behind the reduction in HIV infections in the county is because they are reducing community viral load, or the amount of the virus, all together.

“The people that are coming to the bus, 80 percent of them are taking their medicines and have undetected viral load, because when we go out we take the medicines directly to them 7 days at a time, sometimes long-acting injectables, so people are able to be adherent to their treatment regiments,” Teague said.

She said they have also been able to significantly reduce hospitalization numbers of HIV patients because of the care the mobile unit has given them.

Teague said they do, however, know there are other areas of the community they are still not reaching, so they want to be able to do more in getting to those certain pockets of people wo are still in need of the mobile treatments.

She said although they still have a long way to go in tackling the HIV and Substance Use Disorder crisis, the bus provides them with a little more leverage to do so.

“One more piece in the tool box for reducing or eliminating blood-borne infectious diseases is either access to clean needles and equipment or pre-exposure prophylaxis medicines, or treatment as prevention, meaning you getting people who are HIV diagnosed on the treatment and in care and undetectable, and that has really been our success story,” said Teague.

Teague said they will also continue to use the larger CAMC mobile unit they’ve been using for areas with a larger population.