A new state AIDS bureau has opened its doors to cope with a growing number of cases, but advocates of those infected with the deadly virus say public apathy is at an all-time high.

Ben Barr, executive director of the volunteer Utah AIDS Foundation, said it's getting tougher to meet emergency needs as donations and grants dwindle.The cupboards of the foundation's food bank are nearly bare, he said, and some sufferers with no other resource may go hungry.

"There's just no money," Barr said. "We've never had to turn people away, but I'm afraid in the next year it may come to that."

Geoff Wertzberger, director of the new State Bureau of HIV-AIDS Prevention, said part of the problem lies in a widespread belief that Utah has managed to escape the worst of the epidemic.

In fact, he said, "As total number of AIDS cases go, state-by-state we are closer to the middle than the bottom."

The new agency has taken over the job formerly done by the Health Department's Bureau of Epidemiology. Wertzberger said the change was made for practical reasons.

"It is a nice recognition as a major health problem overall," he said. "But it was simply a move to make us more responsive to the needs."

Since 1983, when record-keeping began, there have been 376 cases of AIDS in Utah, and 228 men, women and children have died. Twenty-five new cases have diagnosed this year.

Utah's numbers seem insignificant compared to New York's, with 34,496 last year alone. But Idaho had 79 cases in 1990, Alaska had 99 and North Dakota the least with 34.

Wertzberger and his 15-member staff perform a variety of functions, including tracking the number of developed AIDS cases and people who are infected with the human immunodeficiency virus, or HIV, that causes it.

The bureau also notifies the partners of newly diagnosed patients and teaches preventive measures.

The AIDS Foundation also provides a spectrum of support, but Barr said its emergency assistance fund has twice been depleted this year.

The foundation's budget was $20,000 in 1988 and about $250,000 in 1990. A three-year, $250,000 grant runs out this year, and Barr said services may have to be cut.

Robert Austin, the foundation's associate director, suggests the public simply may be tired of hearing about the disease.

"I think the nation as a whole has a pretty short attention span. It's pretty hard to go day in and day out dealing with HIV as something that's always newsworthy," he said.

Education remains the best defense against the virus, and Wertzberger said that has "drastically slowed" its spread.

Barr relies heavily on volunteer teachers, including a handful of people with AIDS.

"Instead of coming here for help, they come here to help," he said.