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'This is not a death sentence': Local doctors, advocates encourage HIV testing in Cleveland

Cuyahoga County ranks 18th in the country for new HIV cases
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Posted at 10:30 AM, Jun 27, 2022
and last updated 2022-06-27 10:30:35-04

CLEVELAND — As the nation honors National HIV Testing Day, Cuyahoga County currently ranks 18th in the country for new cases.

Dr. Adriana Whelan, associate Director of Primary Care and HIV Programs for The Centers for Families and Children, says the diagnosis of HIV increased during the pandemic.

“This increase was mostly seen in the ER. So, people were going to the ER, you know, having not had regular care and then when they got tested, they found a new diagnosis. So, in Cuyahoga County, we saw a jump in 20% of new diagnoses in HIV,” she explained. “A lot of times this is underreporting because it depends on people coming out and getting testing, which is why I think National HIV Testing Day is really important. [It’s] just to let people know that there are resources.”

The Centers, in collaboration with the HIV Healthcare Foundation, is hosting two free HIV testing sites Monday, June 27 from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. at the following locations:

  • 12201 Euclid Avenue, Cleveland, OH 44106
  • 4400 Euclid Avenue, Cleveland, OH 44103

If you can’t make it, The Centers and other partnering agencies offer walk-in testing and services. For more information, click, here.

'Knowing your HIV status is self-care'

The CDC recommends HIV testing as early as 13 years old to age 64. Though, Whelan says it should be done at least once during their lifetime for anyone who is sexually active, and annually for those at increased risk. However, fear of knowing one’s status is a challenging social norm. It’s one Whelan and her team are pushing to change.

“Even though it is something that is a pretty significant factor in someone's life when they find out. It's really treatment as is available and early treatment means you live a long life…we need to look at is HIV in its entirety in terms of being a treatable disease and most of the time, exposures are not intentional,” she said. “We have that wraparound care to link them to care and then wherever they want to go in terms of their treatment, we have it here.”

Currently, Whelan says there is an influx of youth battling HIV and lack of support. She says youth, specifically ranging from 15-years-old to their early 20s, are one of the populations HIV affects most.

“We have a lot of young men who are, you know, basically homeless because of their sexual orientation,” she explained. “We have a couple of agencies that are geared towards helping this youth, but there's not a lot of them out there in terms of funding and support for that specific age group…finding a safe place for them to say it is key.”

Living with HIV

Clifford Barnett, a Cleveland native and HIV awareness advocate, says he remembers the shock he felt when he was told that he needed to get tested for HIV after becoming hospitalized with fever-like symptoms.

“I remember the doctor just came in and just told me, you need to see about your white blood cells or red blood cells and I'm like, okay, what about it,” he asked? “She [was] like, well, you just need to get HIV tested.”

Barnett was just 20 years old at the time and was aware of the negative stigmas surrounding the disease. He says he had even faced it with his doctor during his days-long hospital stay.

“I've been able to see the impacts that HIV has had over the course of time from being a young adult to being now a middle-aged young man,” he said. “A lot of people are afraid to even find out their status. A lot of people are afraid to just go in and ask about an HIV test in general.”

Barnett, now 38, says he felt stuck.

But he went to get tested immediately. He tested positive.

“I don't know if it was harder getting the diagnosis or if it was harder having to talk about it,” Barnett explained. “I don’t believe I accepted my status, let alone trying to get someone else to accept it. I just wasn’t comfortable in my skin at that [time].”

For years, Barnett says he coped with his diagnosis through work, which isolated him from his social circles. It wasn’t until he participated in a “Love Leads Here” campaign by the Cuyahoga County Board of Health, that he decided to advocate for himself and others.

“When I did it, to me it was just like a huge relief that just came over like, okay, now I can be truly accepting of myself because the one thing I haven't accepted was my status, he said. “Now, I'm in a place where I am, who I am. I’m healthier than most and I keep myself going and I maintain… I do this for me and that's kind of what I like to emphasize to a lot of the patients when I talk to them. This isn't like back in 1989 when they called it a death sentence. No, you can live. You can thrive.”