July was national HIV Awareness Month – and a new mobile testing clinic hit the streets of the Palm Springs area to spread the word. The Get Tested Coachella Valley (GTCV) crew set up the mobile testing unit in front of all three local hospitals, offering free HIV tests to the staff and to the public. Patients just swipe the stick across their gums – and the results are ready in 20 minutes. The Ora-Quick test is a relatively new device (approved by the FDA in 2012). If the test is positive for the antibodies that fight HIV, the patient is referred to a doctor to get a blood test to confirm the diagnosis.
The sun-drenched Palm Springs area is a hotspot for the virus that causes AIDS. The prevalence of HIV in the Coachella Valley is twice the national average. Yet it is estimated that 50-70 percent of residents have never been tested for HIV and don’t know their status.
Get Tested Coachella Valley’s Todd Watkins assists patients with the test when they come to the van. “The sooner that they find out that they are HIV positive, the healthier they are gonna maintain for the rest of their lives. It’s about being sexually responsible and knowing their HIV status. People might be shocked that the number one group contracting HIV today is African American women. Teens are number two.”
Get Tested Coachella Valley has set up the mobile testing van at several major public events over the past few months, including the Black History Parade, Blatino Oasis (a gathering of men of color), and the 25th Annual White Party in April, which drew an estimated 30,000 people. Next year they are hoping have a presence at the area’s two mega music festivals: Stagecoach and Coachella.
Get Tested is a five million dollar effort housed at the Desert AIDS Project in Palm Springs. The area’s largest hospital, Desert Regional Medical Center is giving $1.5 million over the next three years and is now spearheading the 2nd phase of the project. The center now offers voluntary HIV tests as part of the standard blood work for people admitted to the hospital after a visit to the E-R.
Get Tested wants more physicians to adopt testing as part of routine office visits. Adding the HIV test to routine lab work would cost insurance companies about $3-$5. HIV testing is covered under Medicare and in health plans under the new Affordable Care Act.
Desert AIDS Project CEO David Brinkman says, “There’s such an opportunity with the Affordable Care Act, now that Americans have access to health insurance, to just routinize this as part of the annual screening that occurs in the annual physical. And for people who don’t have that access but seek health care in the emergency departments or in community clinics, to routinize it in that setting as well. So we ensure everybody gets an opportunity to get tested for HIV.”