FULTON, NY – In a direct response to Governor Cuomo’s plan to end the HIV epidemic in New York State, the NYS Department of Health AIDS Institute has awarded Oswego County Opportunities a grant to begin a mobile HIV testing initiative in Oswego County.
The grant is one of only three that were awarded in the Upstate area and is the only one that serves such a rural community as Oswego County.
OCO Health Services was able to obtain a customized van that is fully equipped to administer testing for HIV.
The van will travel throughout all of Oswego County and provide community members with easy access to HIV testing.
“It’s exciting to think of the opportunities the HIV testing van opens up for our outreach program,” said OCO Health Education Services Coordinator Ellen Lazarek. “The van allows us to easily reach out to all of Oswego County to conduct tests and offer support groups to towns and villages where we do not have offices and there are limited transportation services.”
Through its association with the OCO Reproductive Health program and collaborations with other agencies, OCO Health Services staff will be able to test individuals on the spot, let them know the results, and refer them to the proper agency so that they will be able to access treatment as soon as possible.
“We are thrilled that our health education team has secured the mobile van to provide HIV testing throughout the county,” said OCO reproductive health program coordinator Inga Back. “These efforts complement what we do in our Centers for Reproductive Health and extend our reach into the community by linking individuals to our clinics for more comprehensive family planning services.”
The HIV testing, to be done by individuals trained in NYS HIV confidentiality and testing, uses a rapid test technology that can detect the virus faster than previous testing options.
The quicker results allow for individuals whose test produced a reactive result to begin treatment sooner so that their viral load can be suppressed, thus leading to a better health outcome.
They will also be able to take the necessary precautions and be less likely to transmit the virus to someone else.
To ensure the success of the HIV testing van OCO Health Education has established a strong collaboration with a number of key partners that includes educational and medical services to meet the needs of those tested.
“From the moment we received the grant we realized that collaboration and bringing all of Oswego County’s health related resources together would play a vital role in the success of the mobile HIV testing initiative,” said Lazarek. “Bryan Seamas of Longley Brothers Dodge in Fulton assisted us with the purchase of the van and locating a company that would be able to customize the van for our purpose, which included the installation of a testing room, sinks, bathroom, etc. Brian Greenhouse of OCO worked within our budget and with the team at Longley Brothers to obtain a suitable vehicle.”
“For educational and medical services, we have partnered with OCO Reproductive Health Services, Farnham, Cayuga Community College Fulton Campus, Oswego Health, and other community partners. We have also collaborated with Upstate Medical in Syracuse to connect people to pre-exposure prophylactics (PrEP). PrEP, which has never before available in Oswego County, is a medication that those at greatest risk to HIV may take to maintain their negative status. Additionally the OCO Centers for Reproductive Health are in the beginning stages of offering PrEP treatment to individuals who meet the requirements, increasing the opportunities for those at greatest risk to access an effective preventative course of treatment,“ Lazarek continued.
“These collaborations allow us to educate individuals that have a non-reactive test result about behaviors that put them at risk for HIV and link them to services offered through area agencies that may allow them to stay non-reactive. For those that have a reactive test result we get them to a lab as soon as possible for a confirmatory blood draw and provide them with information on what their next steps can be,” said Lazarek.
While HIV testing, along with testing for STDs and Hepatitis C, is a large part of grant there is also a focus on harm reduction, safe sex options and support services.
Community level interventions and other outreach initiatives are in place to address those issues.
– OCO health educators and youth health advocates are connecting with groups that are populated by at risk individuals and encouraging them to visit the van for testing and education.
– Outreach through the use of popular social media platforms such as Snapchat, Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, You Tube, You Now, Periscope, VINE, and Tumbler asks and encourages community members to “Know Your Status”, raises awareness of the mobile HIV testing van, and disseminates information regarding safe sex options and other behaviors to avoid HIV.
– Condoms, safe sex supplies and information about safe sex practices are provided by creating spots where they can be easily accessible such as local agencies, college campuses, area businesses, etc.
“The at-risk population for HIV is much broader than one may think,” according to OCO collaboration manager for Health Education Toni Ross. “It goes beyond men who have sex with men, people having sex in exchange for money or drugs, and women who have sex with men who have sex with men. It includes intravenous drug users and anyone that shares needles for medication or drugs.”
“Individuals in our community are recognizing that there are significant issues related to intravenous drug use’” added Lazarek. “We know it’s a problem and while decreasing drug use a huge goal, we also wish to work with individuals who are currently using to help keep them HIV negative and provide preventative services including connections to substance abuse treatment resources. Our ultimate goal with the mobile HIV testing van is to make Oswego County HIV/AIDS free. We know that at the moment it is not. We want to reach those individuals that participate in risky behaviors who are not aware of their status; those that have had a previous HIV diagnosis but have fallen out of treatment; and those in our communities that are HIV positive and have no idea they are. The first step in achieving our goal of an HIV/AIDS free Oswego County is to find those individuals that are at risk, get them tested and into treatment if needed and teach them how to keep themselves and others safe. The mobile HIV testing van makes that first step a reality.”
OCO Health Education is looking to serve 300 unduplicated individuals per year either through testing or support throughout the length of the grant.
Beginning in October, OCO is anticipating that the HIV testing van will be available four days a week.
“We are mapping out a schedule that will allow us to have the van accessible in areas where there is the greatest concentration of high risk individuals,” said Lazarek. “To increase the van’s visibility we will be participating in the Oswego County Pride parade, the Addiction Awareness Walk and other such events so that people will become familiar with the van, tell others of the services available at the van, and encourage those that may benefit from those services to visit the van at their earliest convenience.”
The impact that OCO’s mobile HIV testing van can have on the overall health of Oswego County is immeasurable.
According to Lazarek, individuals that are at the greatest risk are usually disconnected from health care.
With the HIV testing van OCO Health Education has the capability to work with a population that does not have health insurance or a primary physician and let them know their status regarding HIV, and ultimately connect them to ongoing health care and prevention services.
“When it comes to eliminating HIV/AIDS in Oswego County getting tested and knowing one’s status is essential as it sets the course for proper treatment and future behavior. People that are HIV positive can live healthy, long and productive lives. They can have their viral load suppressed to non-detectable levels and have healthy relationships and be parents, but you have to do the work on the front end. The OCO HIV testing van allows us to do just that,” Lazarek said.
Visit www.oco.org for more information.