With Florida and St. Petersburg repeatedly ranking high for rates of HIV and AIDS, the AIDS Healthcare Foundation (AHF) opened a new clinic on Monday near the Skyway Marina District.
“We’re really here for people who have a need for HIV primary care, regardless of their ability to pay,” said Michael Weinstein, president of AHF. “There are many, many people in the St. Pete area who are positive and are not in care, so our priority is to get them into care for their own personal health but also to break the chain of infection.”
Weinstein said that the higher numbers in Florida may be because of the lack of sex education in schools, lack of access to affordable care, and the carefree attitude of vacationers. As of 2016, the rate of HIV diagnoses among adults and adolescents in Florida was 28 per 100,000 people.
“We chose St. Pete because we have another clinic in Safety Harbor and many of those patients were from St. Pete,” Weinstein said. “We wanted to bring care closer to their home, plus St. Pete is number 15 in the nation in new HIV infections.”
The clinic will now be a part of an already existing Out of the Closet store and pharmacy. Money from non-profit businesses like the on-site pharmacy will help pay for the clinic. For now, the clinic will be operating two days a week, and will add days if needed. The all-in-one center offers free one-minute HIV testing.
“When a person finds out that they’re positive, they will be assigned a linkage coordinator and that person will get them in for their first appointment within 72 hours,” Weinstein said.
Celeste Philip, Florida's Surgeon General, cites the CDC recommendation that all individuals between the ages of 13 and 64 should be tested at least once for HIV, regardless of risk factors.
Those who have risk factors, which include involvement in sex work, time in prison, or being in a mixed-status couples, where one partner has HIV and the other doesn’t, should be tested regularly.
"If we can identify someone early on in their infection, and get them started on the medication right away, and keep their cd4 count high and their viral load low, that will allow them to potentially lead a very long life, and importantly, also not transmit the virus to others, because if your viral load is suppressed, it’s impossible to transmit to others," Philip said.
Philip said the state has two programs it plans to roll out to all 67 county health departments by the end of 2018. The "Rapid Test and Treat" pilot program started about a year ago, and offers free, same-day treatment to people who test positive for HIV when they go in for testing.
The other program is a statewide PrEP Initative to help prevent the spread of HIV through a drug called Truvada. When used in combination with condoms, the drug is up to 92 percent effective at preventing HIV in high-risk groups. If someone is exposed to the virus, it can help keep HIV from taking hold.
According to Florida Department of Health data from 2016, 78 percent of people diagnosed with HIV are men and 22 percent are women.
Weinstein said that there needs to be more awareness and social marketing for safer sex in Florida.
“We have more patients in Florida than anywhere else in the nation,” said Weinstein. “I think if you always do what you always did you’ll always get what you always got, and what we’ve got now is a crisis in Florida. Florida is one of the few places even on a worldwide basis where the epidemic is growing.”
For more information about testing sites and treatment, visit the National HIV Testing Day page.