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Mobile testing unit aims to slow the spread of HIV in Tampa Bay

Starting in January, local nonprofit Metro Inclusive Health will bring care and prevention to communities most affected by the virus.

ST. PETERSBURG — Metro Inclusive Health, a local health and wellness nonprofit that provides services for the LGBTQ community, is launching a mobile testing unit aimed at bringing HIV screening into communities hit hard by the virus.

“We’re trying to eliminate the barriers to care and prevention,” said Brian Bailey, the center’s chief marketing and experience officer. “HIV testing is always ground zero.”

Bringing a testing lab into the community “makes it a little easier,” he said, by providing a neutral space for those who may not have access to doctors’ offices or who may not be comfortable at one.

During a Dec. 15 trial run at the Enoch Davis Recreation Center in St. Petersburg, a team of Metro Inclusive Health staff set up the lab — a heavily equipped van — in the parking lot. The entrance faced away from the street to protect patient privacy.

In about an hour at the unit, patients can complete HIV testing, learn about prevention, receive a telehealth appointment with a physician from inside the van, and — if appropriate — walk out with a PrEP prescription.

PrEP — a daily oral pill — is 99 percent effective in preventing HIV, said Bailey. Metro Inclusive Health has been working to get the medication to those who need it at little or no cost. For those who are underinsured or uninsured, the organization offers cost assistance programs.

Testing involves a prick in the finger to draw blood. Then the rapid tests produce results in about one minute. As a pandemic precaution, the unit has an air filtration system.

A look inside the Metro Inclusive Health mobile HIV testing van, which is outfitted with an air filtration system as a precaution during the pandemic. Plans call for the van to make rounds in Pinellas first before expanding to other areas of Tampa Bay.
A look inside the Metro Inclusive Health mobile HIV testing van, which is outfitted with an air filtration system as a precaution during the pandemic. Plans call for the van to make rounds in Pinellas first before expanding to other areas of Tampa Bay. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

Initially, the unit will go to locations in Pinellas, primarily in St. Petersburg, where Black communities have been hit disproportionately hard with HIV. In January, it will fan out to more locations including college campuses, churches and various neighborhoods.

In time, Bailey said, the unit will make its way to other parts of Tampa Bay.

In the United States, the number of new HIV diagnoses for Black people was over 16,000 in 2018, significantly higher than the 9,560 reported for white people, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The number for Hispanic and Latino individuals was 10,246.

Black men who report having sex with men are most affected by HIV and accounted for more than 25 percent of new HIV diagnoses in 2018, according to the data.

Among women in Florida, nearly 60 percent of HIV diagnoses were Black, and over 95 percent of women with HIV contracted it from a heterosexual interaction, according to Florida Department of Health data. About half were diagnosed over the age of 40.

The mobile unit from Metro Inclusive Health is just one way to get tested. The center also offers at-home test kits, allowing individuals to run the test, receive a telehealth consultation, and get a PrEP prescription in the mail with no-contact delivery.

The Foundation for a Healthy St. Petersburg provides partial funding for Times stories on equity. It does not select story topics and is not involved in the reporting or editing.

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