GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — National HIV Testing Day is Sunday, June 27, in the United States. However, the Kent County Health Department and the Grand Rapids Red Project will be recognizing the day on Thursday with a free HIV testing site.
“It is still an epidemic in the United States. One in eight people living with HIV don’t know that they have it,” said April Hight, personal health services program supervisor for the health department. “And that’s the main way that it's spread is by people who don’t know they have it. Oftentimes, there aren’t really a lot of signs when you first get infected with HIV. If you have signs and symptoms, they could kind of resemble other things like the flu.”
The event will take place from 2 p.m. to 6 p.m. in the parking lot on Franklin and Jefferson streets. Hight added there will also be music, food and sexual health education.
“We’re going to have two mobile units,” Hight said. “The Kent County Health Department and the Red Project crew will be out there. Free testing. The tests are really short. A simple finger poke.”
Then people will get their results in 20 minutes.
“We’re going to have free safer sex supplies,” said Annie Albury with the Red Project. “Lots of great information. We’re going to be able to talk with people about PREP: Pre Exposure Prophylaxis, which is once-a-day pill that you can use to prevent getting HIV infection.”
The Red Project, a nonprofit that emphasizes HIV prevention and education, was created in 1998 and so far has distributed a total 51,000 condoms and 300,000 syringes.
“We do a syringe access program and narcan training or naloxone training," Albury said. "Our three main public health missions are reducing the risk of HIV, Hepatitis C, or overdose death.”
According to the CDC, there were over 37,000 new cases in the U.S. in 2018; 69 percent were among young men in the LGBTQ+ community, 24 percent were among heterosexuals, and 7 percent were from people who injected drugs.
Albury said the cases have increased during the pandemic. Nevertheless, there’s always a stigma to combat.
“Sometimes they attach the testing to, ‘Oh, you're having a lot of sexual partners,' or, ‘Your life is not in order,’” said Dr. Minerva Galang of Mercy Health St. Mary’s. “I always say, ‘A test is a test. Let’s not give emotion to the test.’ And, that we ought to understand what the risks are.”
Dr. Galang is the medical director of the HIV clinic at Mercy Health, called the McAuley Center. She said with early detection and current medication, HIV can be undetectable in people’s bodies.
She, too, advocates for early testing and said many with the disease live healthy, long lives, and some have even started families.
“I think that with the interventions that are available right now, if a pregnant woman has HIV there is only less than one percent risk of transmission to the baby,” Dr, Galang said during a Zoom interview. “It’s only when the infection is not controlled that that risk can be as high as 85 to 90 percent.”
She added that Mercy Health also offers appointment for HIV testing, as does the Kent County Health Department and Project Red.
Officials are hoping many will come out on Thursday, get tested, and overcome their fears.
“People still kind of shy away when you say anything like HIV, STIs,” Hight said. “Hopefully we can get past that because it’s not going away.”
Other Testing sites:
Muskegon Red Project
- Tuesday (4p - 6p) Sanford between Broadway and Sherman
- Wednesday (5p - 7p), Mobile Health Unit at 1657 S. Getty
Grand Rapids Red Project
- Monday (6p - 7:30p), 54 S. Division (Heartside Ministries)
- Monday (1p - 3:30p), 401 Hall St. SE
- Thursday (1p - 3:30p), 401 Hall St. SE
- Thursday (6p - 7:30p), 54 S. Divsion (Heartside Ministries)
- Friday (3p - 4:30p), Mobile Health Unit - Boston Sq. (Walgreen's parking lot, 1601 Kalamazoo Ave. SE)
- Friday (5p - 6:30p), Mobile Health Unit - Parking lot at Burton and Division
- Every 4th Thursday, (10:30p - 1:30a), 69 South Division (Rumors Nightclub)