HOUSTON (June 22, 2021) — More than 40 years after the first reported cases of HIV/AIDS, experts still stress the importance of knowing one’s HIV status for prevention. On National HIV Testing Day (June 27), everyone is reminded to resume HIV screenings and other important in-person health screenings as the population moves to a post-COVID life.
At Harris Health System, the process of HIV testing is easier than ever. In January, the system’s HIV screening program administered its one millionth HIV screening test—1,002,357 as of May 31. In simple terms, Harris Health has achieved the 2006 U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s goal to make HIV testing a truly routine procedure.
“One million tests is a great milestone, and few programs in the U.S. have done this much testing, but it’s still not enough,” says Dr. Thomas Giordano, medical director, Thomas Street Health Center, and professor, Baylor College of Medicine. “The latest available CDC estimates are from before the pandemic and suggest there are about 5,000 people with undiagnosed HIV in the Houston area.”
Illustrating the continued need for testing is the fact that Harris Health’s emergency centers at Ben Taub and Lyndon B. Johnson hospitals still report a .45% HIV positivity rate among patients screened. That rate represents more than four times the CDC’s .1% rate recommended to maintain a testing program.
“Being able to diagnose people is a huge tool in ending the epidemic,” says Nancy Miertschin, grants project manager, HIV Services, Harris Health. “Until you get someone diagnosed, you don’t get them into care. So Harris Health continues to think that HIV testing is very important. It’s definitely still needed and our program identifies the most new cases in the county.”
Today, Harris Health follows a non-targeted approach of testing individuals at any of its hospitals and health centers, and most recently at its same-day clinics. Patients still are able to opt out of testing. Only those who haven’t had a recent test in the system and need lab work get an HIV test. In emergency centers, an estimated 40% of patients may require some sort of blood lab work.
From August 2008 through May 2021, the program—Routine Universal Screening for HIV (RUSH)—has identified 2,507 new HIV cases and more than twice as many previously known positive cases who were not in regular care for HIV.
“We’ve seen a drop in testing due to COVID and we need to make sure people get back into the routine of getting necessary health care and screenings,” Giordano adds. “Things are so much better now with the pandemic, especially for people who are vaccinated, so let’s not compound the pandemic by letting it make HIV worse. Get tested, ask for it, and if someone asks you if you want a test, take it.”
An important component of Harris Health’s testing program is its ability to connect patients with follow-up HIV/AIDS care at Thomas Street Health Center, its dedicated all-in-one care location. When a patient is identified as having HIV (either new or previously diagnosed), a trained HIV counselor helps inform the patient of the results, provides education and sets up appointments with an HIV primary care physician or other support services.
For Dawn Jenkins, director of HIV Services and administrator of Thomas Street Health Center, the linkage of people with HIV to care is one of the most important functions of RUSH.
“Finding out you have HIV can be a very scary and confusing time,” she says. “Helping patients navigate this news and helping them receive the care they need is what Harris Health does best. We know that patients who receive care quickly and consistently can live long and productive lives.”
Giordano urges everyone to use National HIV Testing Day as a reminder to advocate for others in the community.
“If your test is negative, you can use the opportunity to learn more about ways to prevent HIV, and if your test is positive you can get on life-saving treatment to maintain your health and block the spread of HIV to others,” he says.
To learn more about HIV, treatment or testing sites, visit CDC.