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Zero Pinellas initiative announced by partnering area health organizations

Megan Holmes

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Leaders of six area cross-sector organizations convened for a press conference Wednesday morning – National HIV Testing Day – to announce Zero Pinellas, a transformative partnership that will work to reduce new HIV infections by half over the next three years. 

“Six people from six different organizations across sectors coming together for one social problem: That is unique in our country. I wish it weren’t, but it is unique in our country,” said Randall Russell, Executive Director of the Foundation for a Healthy St. Petersburg, the funder behind the initiative.

Through the nationally-recognized 90-90-90-50 cascade model, Zero Pinellas will seek to implement a strategy in which 90 percent of those living with HIV know their status, 90 percent of those diagnosed with HIV are linked to care and retained in antiretroviral therapy; and 90 percent of those retained in treatment have an HIV-suppressed viral load. The culmination of these factors would in turn lead to a 50 percent reduction in new HIV cases over three years.

“The Foundation’s deep belief is: These folks have wisdom,” said Russell. “We wanted to fuel their wisdom until they came to a solution and a resolution that they wanted to embrace.”

Zero Pinellas’ partner organizations include AIDS Healthcare Foundation, The AIDS Institute, BayCare, Empath Health and EPIC, Florida Department of Health in Pinellas County and Metro Wellness and Community Centers. Leaders from these organizations gathered at Poynter Institute Wednesday morning to unveil the plan they’ve been working on for the last 18 months. It’s the first effort to come out of the Foundation for a Healthy St. Petersburg’s convening process. 

It will be funded by a $2.2 million grant over the three-year period, to support personnel, outreach, advocacy, testing and operation costs associated with the strategy. “These are the experts,” said Russell. “This is the path forward – in our minds – to lots of situations that are out of equity in our community.” 

Breaking out of the traditional foundation mold of responsive grant-making, the Foundation for a Healthy St. Petersburg is building systems to listen to the community, identify problems and gather the right partners around a table to solve them in a systemic way.

Through its vision for health equity, the Foundation seek to identify structural barriers in the community that lead to differences in the social determinants of health. The organization has identified HIV/AIDS as a major source of inequity in Pinellas County.

In 2015, Florida saw 27.9 new cases per 100,000 people, the highest rate of new infections in adolescents and adults in the U.S. Strikingly, black men were by far the largest group affected by these diagnoses. While African Americans make up only 15 percent of Florida’s total population, they comprised 42 percent of the diagnosed HIV cases in Florida in 2016. In that same year, 174 new cases of HIV were diagnosed in Pinellas County.

“Biochemically, we know how to eradicate transmission,” Russell explained. “However, we’re dealing with human beings, and human beings and behavior are really challenging to try to figure out.”

In order to see the kind of transformative change this plan is seeking, many of the organizations’ leaders recognize that processes and outreach models will have to evolve. Joy Winheim is Executive Director of EPIC, which has been serving Tampa, St. Pete and Clearwater communities for over 30 years; she said the organization is more than excited to be a part of Zero Pinellas.

“We’ve been doing things the same way forever and it hasn’t worked. We are grateful to the Foundation for making us sit down at a table and realize our partnerships are much stronger than all of us individually.”

Each organization will utilize their experience and expertise to reach out to at-risk populations, provide testing and evaluate the effectiveness of the program. “We’ve built our entire project on how to identify barriers to care and to reduce those barriers,” said Rebecca Nessen, Director of Health Initiatives of Metro Wellness and Community Centers.

“Being able to leverage the best practices and extensive experience that all of these community partners have in how to reach these populations – finding new places to do testing, engaging those community stakeholders, those gatekeepers – I think is really important,” Nessen said. 

Focuses will include reaching into disproportionately affected zip codes, providing transportation to care appointments, small incentives for testings and innovative measures using social media and dating app ads. One of the major efforts will be to employ members of the target communities themselves. 

The Zero Pinellas collaborative plan is another in a tide of targeted HIV interventions. It comes on the heels of the opening of the AIDS Healthcare Foundation’s new state-of-the-art medical center, announced Monday morning. It also follows a December 2017 announcement by the Florida Department of Health that it will make Truvada, the Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis medication (PrEP), freely available in all of the 67 county health departments by the end of this calendar year.

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