When Shelley Taylor-Donahue started working with HIV and AIDS patients in the late 1980s, there was very little she could do to save lives.
"Everybody was dying," she said. "We were going to funerals."
She said that's not the case anymore.
Thanks to medical breakthroughs, it's easier to save lives.
Thanks to improved sex education, the public is better equipped to prevent the spread of the disease.
And thanks to increased visibility and acceptance of the LGBT community, it has become easier to talk openly about the social stigma that HIV and AIDS are exclusive to gay people.
So today, for World AIDS Day, Taylor-Donahue, the HIV and AIDS program coordinator with the Florida Department of Health in Pinellas County, will set up shop in the middle of Williams Park in downtown St. Petersburg to talk about HIV.
There will be food and live entertainment, goodie bags and free condoms at every booth.
Most importantly, there will be free testing for HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases.
"It's always good to know your status," Taylor-Donahue said.
The health department, in collaboration with other HIV-awareness organizations through the Pinellas Planning Partnership, will offer rapid testing, which requires a quick finger stick and produces results within 20 minutes.
For those who don't want their blood drawn, a cotton swab test will be available, though the results are not immediate.
Usually, between 100 and 200 people come to the Williams Park World AIDS Day event. But Taylor-Donahue said she hopes the attention actor Charlie Sheen received since revealing his HIV-positive status might inspire more people to get tested.
"Florida has now surpassed New York in new HIV infections," she said, "and this is something we don't want to be No. 1 at."
The Sunshine State has the highest number of new HIV diagnoses in the nation, with Hillsborough and Pinellas counties posting some of the biggest increases in Florida.
From 2012 to 2014, Hillsborough County diagnoses of HIV increased 63 percent. In Pinellas County, they jumped 32 percent.
A complacency among young people — and, surprisingly, the elderly — could be to blame for the uptick.
For those ages 18 to 32, HIV awareness isn't as heightened because most people in that age group didn't live through the height of the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s, said Hillsborough County Health Department spokesman Steve Huard.
In older demographics, the popularity of performance-enhancing drugs like Viagra have made retirement communities more sexually active, Huard said, and therefore more prone to sexually transmitted diseases.
Because they're not afraid of getting pregnant, senior citizens are also less likely to wear condoms.
"They're not thinking it's in their population," Taylor-Donahue said. "HIV is a human disease. It doesn't discriminate."
Taylor-Donahue and Huard said drug treatments have become so successful at preventing the progression of the disease that many HIV-positive people are now dying of old age — not as a result of the disease itself.
"We have so many resources for people," Taylor-Donahue said. "We can help you."
But first, people need to get tested.
"If you don't, it could be just like the '80s," Taylor-Donahue said.
"We want to get to zero new infections to zero people dying," she added. "I would love to work myself out of a job."
Contact Katie Mettler at [email protected] or (813) 226-3446. Follow @kemettler.