Knowing your status takes only a minute now. Literally.
A rapid HIV test, new to Florida, is helping local advocates reach more people in a state where the virus has hit epidemic levels.
More than 100,000 people in Florida are living with HIV right now, and about 15 percent of them don’t know they have it. Despite advances in medicine that both prevent and treat the virus, along with more outreach and education, rates of infection continue to climb in America.
In 2016, 611 people out of every 100,000 living in Florida had HIV, according to data collected by AIDSVu, an online mapping tool that shows where the virus is spreading in the U.S. Pinellas and Hillsborough counties are among the most active in the state.
Dozens of advocacy groups, local and national, are trying to thwart the spread of HIV. In his State of the Union address in February, President Donald Trump announced an initiative to end the epidemic in the U.S. by 2030. In Pinellas, the “Zero Pinellas” partnership aims to reduce the number of new HIV infections in the county by 50 percent by 2021.
Metro Inclusive Health, an LGBTQ health care nonprofit and a member of Zero Pinellas, is seeing more people come in for the new test, known as INSTI, which gives a result in 60 seconds.
“The new rapid test allows us to give people results sooner, and lets us go out into the field to test people who may be at higher risk for HIV,” said Rebecca Nessen, vice president of strategic initiatives for Metro, which offers primary care and HIV services to patients in Pasco, Pinellas and Hillsborough counties, regardless of ability to pay.
“Usually the people who are at higher risk aren’t the type who are going to walk in our door for an appointment,” Nessen said.
The test isn’t brand new — it’s been on the market for a couple of years. But the Florida Department of Health recently approved it for use, so Metro and other nonprofits that receive grants from the state can use it at their clinics. Metro began offering the service to patients on Sept. 30, Nessen said.
There are a variety of ways to screen for HIV, all involving a blood test. Previously, Metro could test for HIV and receive a result in 20 minutes. Another test the organization offers sends a blood sample to a lab, where results return in 10-to-14 days.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend that everyone 13 and older be tested at least once in their lives for HIV. High-risk populations should test at least once a year.
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The INSTI test checks for HIV antibodies in the blood. HIV antibodies are disease-fighting proteins that the body produces in response to the infection. It can take three to 12 weeks from the time of infection for the body to develop antibodies, which is why organizations like Metro still offer a range of HIV tests.
“Most people who come in to be tested are the ones who suspect they have been exposed," said Shirlene Manuel, a prevention specialist with Metro. And that 20-minute wait time for the other test can be stressful, she said.
Manuel recalled talking on the phone with one patient for two weeks before convincing him to come in for an HIV test. Once he was in the Metro clinic waiting room, he tried to leave.
Shaving off those extra minutes makes a big difference, she said. “When someone has made the decision to get tested, generally, they want to know the result right away.”
The INSTI test requires a quick prick from a finger and a small amount of blood, which is then mixed with three solutions. Similar to a pregnancy test, one dot or two will appear on the test device to show the result. One dot means the result is negative. Two is positive.
For patients who test positive, Metro is able to connect them with clinical, behavioral and support services. For those who test negative, Metro can help them get a prescription for PrEP, short for pre-exposure prophylaxis, the daily drug that can prevent HIV.
Metro clinical members also use the rapid test at events in the community. From Pride events in downtown St. Petersburg to health fairs, recreation centers and other community gatherings, they offer tests from mobile clinic vans.
But stigma is still a major barrier in convincing people to get tested, Manuel said. It comes “across the board,” she said, from young and old and people of all races.
Manuel has heard the excuses.
“People say, ‘I don’t do those kinds of things’ so they don’t think they need to be tested. Or they use condoms, or they’ve only had one partner,” she said. “Even in 2019 going into 2020, stigma in this community is still high.”
No-cost HIV tests available
In observance of World AIDS Day on Sunday, health departments are offing free HIV tests at these locations on Monday:
- 205 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. St. N, St. Petersburg
- 6350 76th Ave. N, Pinellas Park
- 8751 Ulmerton Road, Largo
- 310 N Myrtle Ave., Clearwater
- 301 S Disston Ave., Tarpon Springs
- Free testing is available from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Dec. 6 at the health department at 10841 Little Road in New Port Richey.