June Leffler Published

Health Activists Implore Charleston Mayor For ‘Proactive’ Help In HIV Fight


Activists in Charleston called on Mayor Amy Goodwin to declare a public health emergency. Some health providers and church leaders say the city needs to better address a cluster of HIV cases as well as the rise in opioid overdose deaths.

At the city’s riverfront park, Magic Island, kids laughed and screamed as they ran through fountains on Saturday. So called “river rats” took their motorboats out on the Kanawha River.

They were all trying to beat the heat. So were a few hundred adults, who gathered at the park’s lawn near Charleston’s West Side, where there were tents offering shade and plenty of bottled water to go around.

The folks here know how to come to the aid of their neighbors. The group was made up of health care workers, peer recovery coaches, faith leaders and parents.

They met on a hot afternoon to send a message to the city that some of Charleston’s most vulnerable are at risk of losing their lives.

“The individuals and the pattern they make up are not someone else’s problem. They are us, and the challenges to their health are our challenges together,” said Rev. Krysta Rexrode Wolfe of Cross Lanes United Methodist Church.

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June Leffler/ WVPB
Rev. Krysta Rexrode Wolfe of Cross Lanes United Methodist Church speaks at the HIV SOS demonstration in Charleston.

Opioid overdose deaths spiked in the capital city and state last year. The opioid crisis has led to another serious threat. HIV is spreading among IV drug users.

To send their message home, a few hundred people formed a signal with their bodies on the lawn. Participants spelled out two acronyms HIV SOS. They wore red shirts that say “love breaks through stigma.” A drone hovered above their heads to take aerial shots of the scene.

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June Leffler / WVPB
Protesters gathered at Magic Island in Charleston for an HIV awareness event.

Participants used their bodies to make their message known. Speakers voiced their concerns loudly.

Dr. Christine Teague has been working with HIV and AIDS patients for 20 years with the Ryan White Foundation. She treated many gay men who contracted the virus sexually in the 1990’s. But her clientele has shifted, due to the rampant use of IV drugs.

“We’ve known for several years that our area is very vulnerable to an outbreak. And so that’s exactly what we’ve seen,” she said.

Teague and other health providers saw the need for more testing, before people wound up in the hospital. More testing confirmed her suspicions. Kanawha County saw 44 new cases of HIV in 2020. That’s three times as many the county saw a few years ago.

“I’m here to tell you that that number is going to continue to grow,” Teague said.

Kristina Hutcheson works with HIV prevention programs through the Partnership for African American Churches.

“The main reason we got into doing our HIV program is because black Americans are disproportionately affected by HIV,” said Hutcheson. “We’re 4% of the the population in West Virginia, but we make up 18% of the new HIV cases.”

Ally Fox, a peer recovery coach from Morgantown also spoke. She said harm reduction services at Morgantown’s Health Right clinic saved her life. There, she received clean syringes, overdose reversal medication, and referrals to substance use disorder treatment.

“I can stand in here and say that I am HIV negative, that my child is safe, he is HIV negative. And that is due to two reasons: God’s good graces and Mon County needle exchange,” Fox said.

More than 30 health, faith and social justice groups supported this event, which was organized by Solutions Oriented Addiction Response, or SOAR. Along with their message, the group brought resources to keep people safe.

“We had HIV testing, we had Covid vaccines, we had a fleet of doctors and nurses available for wound care,” said SOAR organizer Joe Solomon.

SOAR also gave out almost 1,000 doses of Narcan that day, which can save the life of someone experiencing an overdose.

The group is used to this kind of work. It hosted fairs that distributed the same products and care at a church parking lot on the West Side. But those fairs stopped, due to public pressure and a city ordinance passed earlier this year. The law says programs like the local Health Right clinic can distribute needles, because it has a brick and mortar location and limits the number of needles it gives out. SOAR gave out needles freely in an open-air setting.

Event participants called on the city to do more, by issuing a local public health emergency. Organizers think a local declaration would garner more attention, promote a sense of urgency, and bring more public resources to the table.

“From day one our administration has been focused on comprehensive solutions to the drug crisis and the harm that’s associated with it,” Goodwin, who is Charleston’s mayor, told West Virginia Public Broadcasting.

Goodwin was the one to request a team from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to investigate the local HIV outbreak, even when state health officials said it wasn’t necessary.

“That includes solutions that are community-led, community-focused and most important community-supported,” Goodwin said.

SOAR criticized the city for passing a law that limits the dispersal of clean needles.

One council member stood with demonstrators on the day of the protest. Robert Sheets represents a ward in the East End. He was the one council member to vote against that local ordinance.

“I thought there were a few others that would have voted no, and I think they would have, but as the vote went on and on everyone just acquiesced and gave in,” he said.

When other members said these unlicensed syringe programs were flooding communities with needle litter, he suggested more syringe disposal containers in the city, not a shutdown of these programs.

“We need to be proactive in our efforts,” he said. “Not reactive, proactive.”