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Pinellas health officials ask St. Pete to partner in fight against HIV

Margie Manning



The Florida Department of Health in Pinellas County urged people to get tested for HIV at a World AIDS Day event in 2018.

The Florida Department of Health in Pinellas County wants to partner with the City of St. Petersburg on a condom distribution program in an effort to end the HIV epidemic.

Distribution programs that provide free condoms are a cost-effective way to prevent the spread of HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, Chris Walker and Nicole Houston, strategic planners and consultants at the health department, told the St. Petersburg City Council’s Health, Energy, Resiliency & Sustainability Committee.

The committee did not vote on the proposal, but three of the four committee members indicated they supported the idea. Deputy Mayor Kanika Tomalin said she has reached out to the Healthy St. Petersburg team and asked them to contact the county.

Walker and Houston unveiled the proposal Thursday during an update on the county’s “Ending the HIV Epidemic” program, or EHE. Pinellas County was one of 48 counties in the United States to implement the program, which focuses on diagnosis, treatment, prevention and response.

In 2019, the most recent year for which complete information is available, most of the newly diagnosed cases were among men in their 20s, with a disproportionate impact among Blacks.

St. Petersburg currently has the highest rate of HIV in Pinellas County, with a concentration of cases in five ZIP codes – 33701, 33705, 33711, 33712, and 33713, Walker and Houston said.

Related: With the pandemic waning, it’s time to focus on the HIV epidemic

The EHE has partnered with nine organizations — including grassroots, black-led, faith-based and LGBTQ+-led groups — and wants to extend that to a partnership with the city on a condom giveaway.

There have been similar initiatives in metropolitan areas including New York City and Washington D.C., high schools in Massachusetts and historically Black colleges in North Carolina, Houston said.

“Not only do they reduce HIV but they also reduce STIs, or sexually transmitted infections, up to 25 percent in the populations that have had this intervention,” Houston said. “It helps reduce expenditures as far as HIV antiretro viral treatments or ART. In fact, the research says that for every $1 of prevention, it saves $5.51.”

It’s expensive to purchase condoms at convenience stores, she said, and while they are available for free at community health centers, those centers are only open during business hours.

Houston and Walker said a partnership with the city could include making free condoms available at college campuses in key ZIP codes, such as Eckerd College and St. Petersburg College’s Allstate, Midtown and Downtown campuses. They also proposed teen rooms at city recreation centers; Uber/Lyft and other ride-share apps; e-scooter and bike share terminals; bars in downtown St. Petersburg; the Central Avenue LGBTQIA+ district and the Art District; and historically Black/Latinx neighborhoods, such as The Deuces, Campbell Park, Child Park, Bartlett Park and Lake Vista.

The partnership also would include messaging on the city’s social media accounts, designed to increase HIV testing and awareness.

Council members Darden Rice and Brandi Gabbard said they support the proposal, while Council member Gina Driscoll, who chairs the HERS committee, said it made sense.

“HIV and AIDS isn’t the killer disease that it used to be but it’s still happening and even though it can be managed now like a chronic disease, it can still be  very costly to the men and women who are diagnosed with it,” Rice said.  

The average lifetime cost of treatment for HIV is $567,000 for one individual, Houston said.

“Prevention will help save some of those costs, not just the financial costs, but also the mental health cost and the toll it takes on an individual living with a diagnosis,” Houston said.

Council Chairman Ed Montanari was more cautious than the other committee members.

“I would not be supportive of having access to condoms in certain city facilities like teen rooms in  recreation centers,” Montanari said. “The other area that I would issue a word of caution on would be the e-scooter and bike share terminals. Those are public locations and there are private companies that have a contract with the city, and we may run into issues like that. The other suggestions that you have I could go along with, but I wanted to draw a line in the sand on those two subjects.”

Driscoll also suggested the EHE program reach out to the private sector, such as the hospitality industry forum recently developed by the St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce.

“There are a lot of great partners in the private sector that I think could get on board with this as well, and I’m sure the city could provide some guidance to make those connections,” Driscoll said.

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