New HIV testing gives fast results

Twenty-one counties, including Pinellas and Hillsborough, offer the test that eliminates a wait of several weeks.

Published August 20, 2006

Three months ago Carol Dunn sat on a stool at Good Samaritan Church in Pinellas Park and allowed someone from Metropolitan Charities to swab the inside of her mouth.

It was the first time the 71-year-old Pinellas County resident had been tested for HIV/AIDS. Before, Dunn said, she couldn't handle the two- to three-week wait that comes with traditional testing.

But with a rapid HIV test, she had to wait only 20 minutes to be told she was HIV-negative.

"I work with a lot of people with HIV and AIDS, and sometimes you can get a cut on your hand and somehow get a blood transfer," said Dunn, who volunteers with HIV/AIDS patients through a community organization. "I was pretty sure I didn't have it, but you never know."

Next month, state public health officials are launching an effort to make HIV testing a standard part of a visit to the doctor. Many see it as a positive step.

"We've tripled the number of people we treat in the past two years since we converted to the quick test," said David Karst, project coordinator for the AIDS Services Association of Pinellas.

Florida's Health Department began trying out the rapid test in 2004 and is now offering it in 21 counties, including Pinellas and Hillsborough.

Results from traditional screening for HIV on blood, urine or saliva samples can take several weeks to get back forcing patients to return for a second visit.

About 25 percent of all positive results go undelivered because people do not make the second visit, said Centers for Disease Control and Prevention spokeswoman Tammy Nunnally.

Rapid testing is more expensive than traditional testing, but the results get delivered.

A recent study of New Jersey's rapid testing program shows that 99 percent of individuals received test results, vs. 65 percent of conventional test takers.

Hillsborough provides quick testing through its Health Department clinics while Pinellas residents can get tested at AIDS Services Association of Pinellas at the Suncoast Resort site or at Metropolitan Charities, both nonprofit community organizations.

Most smaller counties, however, are not offering the testing because the state supplies the tests and has not provided them yet.

"We have actually been trying to get rapid testing," said Michael Wallace, Citrus County Health Department's specialist. "The No. 1 barrier stopping people from getting tested is that excruciating wait."

The state Health Department also has been using the rapid test in emergency rooms at Shands Jacksonville Medical Center and Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami.

Getting quick results during an emergency operation allows doctors to know what precautions to take during surgery and with medication, Wallace said.

Since 2000, Karst said, the Suncoast Resort office of AIDS Services Association of Pinellas, 3000 34th St. S., has given 3,000 rapid tests, and it's increasing.

Patients must receive 15 minutes of counseling before the test is administered.

"We ask a lot of questions to try and get their frame of mind because we don't want them to walk out the door and jump off a bridge if they are positive," said Karst, who is HIV-positive.

Patients must still get a traditional test to confirm they are HIV-positive, but Karst reminds people that rapid testing is 99.6 percent accurate.

At the Metropolitan Charities at Metro Center, Ramon Baez, a prevention specialist, tests 80 to 90 people a month of all ages, races and sexual orientation.

"We counsel a lot of people who test negative and tell them you've got to behave in a better way so you don't have to worry about this anymore," Baez said.

He believes access to rapid testing is vital to conquering AIDS.

"If we're going to fight this war with HIV, I believe that one of the most important things we must do is get people tested," Baez said.

Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.