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Pinellas health officials are offering HIV testing on World AIDS Day

Red ribbon in human hand
World AIDS Day is Wednesday and the Florida Department of Health in Pinellas County is providing an opportunity for people to get free HIV tests.

World AIDS Day is Wednesday and the Florida Department of Health in Pinellas County is providing an opportunity for people to get free HIV tests.

HIV/AIDS continues to affect Florida.

The latest Florida Healthdata shows that a total of 117,477 people were living with the virus by the end of 2020, an increase of 3,504 from a year earlier.

That number of new diagnoses is down from 4,558 in 2019.

Darius Lightsey, HIV/AIDS Program Coordinator at DOH-Pinellas, said while the overall number of new cases was down in Pinellas County as well, there is still an increase within some sub-populations.

“So while we're doing good in some respects, there's more targeted outreach and education that needs to be done,” said Lightsey.

According to a DOH-Pinellas press release, 2019 figures showed:

  • A 53.2% rate in new diagnoses in the county’s Black population. 
  • Rates among Latinx people were also higher at 29.2%. 
  • The highest rate is in men who have sex with men. 
  • Cases are also higher for those who use injectable drugs.

Lightsey said that even though DOH-Pinellas and their community partners were providing services throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, they still saw some effect on HIV transmission.

“In some cases of COVID, we have people that weren't going to their medical appointments, for example, we've had some rising cases of infection within certain populations because people were in the house,” said Lightsey. “And so that tends to contribute to some of the increase.”

However, there may be more people who don’t know they have HIV because they’ve never been tested.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, an estimated 13% of those living with HIV/AIDS in the United States do not know they are infected.

Lightsey said the stigma some people still associate with the virus is the number one reason they don’t get tested or seek treatment when they test positive.

“Silence is truly deafening in this instance. If we don't create a space and an environment within our communities where people living with HIV can get the help they need, then you're going to see more people get infected,” said Lightsey.

“You're going to see rising cases, and you're going to see people that will ultimately not live their best life. They're going to have a very complicated time moving forward the longer they go untreated.”

World AIDS Day, which is observed on Dec. 1 annually, provides an opportunity for anyone to be tested for HIV.

DOH-Pinellas County, as part of the Pinellas Planning Partnership, is having free HIV testing on Wednesday and Saturday.

Lightsey said that it's important for people to get tested, both to help themselves as well as decrease the number of infections in the community.

“We want to be able to easily identify someone who's newly diagnosed, or otherwise we want to be able to get those people into services quickly,” said Lightsey. “We also want to be able to make contact with any partners, anyone else who may have been exposed, and get those persons tested.”

Lightsey added that even though they are suspending costs for HIV testing on those days, they’ll never turn a patient away at other times.

“Even if they cannot afford to pay, we will still give them tests,” said Lightsey.

DOH-Pinellas will provide no-cost, no-appointment HIV testing at five of its centers from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday:

  •    St. Petersburg - 205 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. St. N.
  •    Pinellas Park - 6350 76th Ave. N.
  •    Mid-County - 8751 Ulmerton Rd., Largo
  •    Clearwater - 310 N. Myrtle Ave.
  •    Tarpon Springs - 301 S. Disston Ave.
World AIDS Day poster from Florida Department of Health in Pinellas County.
Florida Department of Health in Pinellas County
Florida Department of Health in Pinellas County

Saturday’s event, Access Granted: Ending the HIV Epidemic, takes place from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the Enoch Davis Center, 1111 18th Ave. S., St. Petersburg.

Lightsey said that focus will be on health equity.

“That is the one of those prevailing messages that we want to promote that you have access to treatment and help,” said Lightsey. “It doesn't matter where you come from or how much planning you have. But there's help if you want it.”

He added that he hopes it will educate people and empower them to have conversations with their family, friends, and peers about the subject of HIV.

“We want to let people know that this is still very much a community issue, but it is one that is meant to be a message of encouragement and hope, not a distance.”

Other county health departments around the state will be holding similar testing events throughout the week. You can find more information about that here.

Christina Loizou is a WUSF Rush Family/USF Zimmerman School Digital News intern for the fall of 2021, her second semester with WUSF.