By Heidi Simmons

Imagine a world without AIDS! The visionaries of Get Tested Coachella Valley have and they are doing everything they can to bring the epidemic to an end starting right here in the CV.

Last week, Get Tested gave their first Annual Report at UCR Palm Desert.

Get Tested Coachella Valley is a bilingual, three-year, $5 million campaign to stop the spread of HIV that leads to AIDS. The goal is to routinely test all local residents for HIV.

The test is free and confidential. It only requires a simple swab inside the mouth. Results are obtainable in 20 minutes! The test is available to everyone 12 years and older.

In Get Tested’s first year, testing sites increased 52 percent and 21,406 tests were conducted across the valley! “We want to make HIV testing as simple as getting a flu shot,” said the vivacious Susan Unger, Project Director. “Having the HIV test accessible and part of standard care eliminates the stigma.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the County of Riverside Department of Public Health Epidemiology and Program Evaluation, the HIV/AIDS prevalence rate in the CV is over two times higher than the national rate, putting everyone at a greater risk. More than half of valley residents have never been tested.

One way Get Tested is reaching out to the valley’s un-tested is by using a mobile testing unit. A major component in their campaign is a bright, cheery orange colored van with nearly full-sized images of healthy, happy people. Those who work with the organization wear the same orange color and are equally cheerful and welcoming. The bold van and smiling counselors generate attention.

“We have orange carpets, tents and umbrellas that we use with our mobile unit that really gets people to notice us,” said Ralph Gonzalez, Prevention, Intervention and Education Manager. “And we often have incentives like gift cards, frozen yogurt or concert tickets to encourage people to take the simple test.”

The Get Tested mobile van is a customized Mercedes-Benz Sprinter with two private testing stations, refrigerators, a bathroom and everything necessary to make the experience comfortable, easy and relaxed.

“We are able to test two people at a time,” said Steven Chacon, Community Health Educator/HIV Test counselor. “The test just takes four minutes. Both testing areas have their own entrance and exit.” During the Gay Pride Parade, Chacon and fellow counselors were able to test 125 people using the van.

The mobile unit has heavy-duty suspension and tires so it can drive on dirt roads and rough terrain. The Get Tested team has traveled over dirt fields to reach farm workers in Mecca. In its first year, the mobile unit has been to all the valley cities and surrounding unincorporated areas.

Get Tested coordinators are eager to send their mobile unit and trained counselors to all kinds of community gatherings and events from big to small: concerts, churches, food banks, senior centers, parades, etc. Invite Get Tested and they will gladly come.

But Get Tested Coachella Valley is not only about the testing. It’s also about early intervention and linkage to care. “Doing this work is no longer an AIDS specific work but belongs to the general healthcare community,” said David Birkman, CEO Desert AIDS Project. “We are trending higher than the national expectation but lead the way in care. Of those who tested positive last year, 87.5 percent were placed in treatment.”

In one year, Get Tested has increased the numbers of test sites, tests given, identified positives and those linked into care.

LabCorp, Planned Parenthood, Desert Regional Medical Center and Desert AIDS Project had 61 preliminary positive HIV tests in 2014. The rate of HIV diagnoses was 1.6 percent, a 22 percent increase from the prior year.

Get Tested Coachella Valley serves as a link to care for those with a preliminary positive test result. Offering recommendations and support, Get Test counselors follow-up with patients to ensure they get proper care and attention.

Treatment with antiviral medication has shown to reduce infectiousness by 96 percent. Identification, along with education, helps prevent the spread of HIV.

In 2012, the Desert AIDS Project hosted think tanks and planning sessions with over 150 community leaders to implement an HIV testing campaign. Within 12 months, more than 50 organizations, agencies, municipalities, elected officials and community leaders endorsed Get Tested Coachella Valley.

Desert AIDS Project launched the fundraising with a $500,000 donation. Desert Regional Medical Center committed $1.5 million over the three years, which is the largest single gift the hospital has made to the community. Nearly $900,000 has been contributed by individuals. The Desert Healthcare District – an organization set up to fund healthcare discrepancies – committed a half million dollars as well.

Part of Get Tested’s growing success is the number of community partners. Their goal is to continue to add more free and confidential HIV testing sites, both public and private. Walgreens has three stores in Indio and one in Coachella that provide the HIV test.

Greg McSwain is the Indio Walgreen’s store manger. “We’re well known and trusted in the community,” said McSwain. “Our customers can come in and get tested without the stigma.” A story was shared about a young man who felt completely comfortable taking the confidential test at Walgreens for HIV because it looked as if he just came in for an annual flu shoot.

Community partner, Health Assessment Resource Center (HARC), plays an integral part in understanding the health of the Coachella Valley. “Getting an HIV test should be no different than getting a cholesterol test,” said Dr. Jenna LeComte-Hinely, Director of Research and Evaluations.

Hinely’s research showed that there were two main reasons why people do not get tested. “They say: ‘I don’t think I’m at risk,’ and ‘my healthcare provider didn’t recommend it.’” HARC is analyzing data now from a recent survey of doctors that should shed light on why doctors are not providing or suggesting the HIV test.

Congressman Dr. Raul Ruiz is a proud champion for Get Tested Coachella Valley/Hazte la Prueba Valle de Coachella. In the 2014 Annual Report, he said: “Anyone can contract the HIV virus – regardless of age, gender, race/ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity or socio-economic circumstance. Staying healthy is much easier when you get tested and know your HIV status. Ruiz encourages everyone to take the test. “Let’s put stigma and ignorance behind us and create a healthier, safer community.”

Testing centers (besides Walgreens and the three major hospitals) include: the Cathedral City Salvation Army, the LGBT Community Center of the Desert, CCBC Resort, Desert AIDS Project, Gear, Helios Resort, Martha’s Village and Kitchen and Rivals. To schedule the mobile unit or for more information regarding testing locations, go to gettestedcoachellavalley.org

Celebrating their first anniversary, the Get Tested Coachella Valley and its community partners are proud and amazed at what they have accomplished. But their excitement and energy is focused on the year ahead. They are fired-up and ready to once again double, if not quadruple, the number of HIV tests.

Testing plus treatment means prevention. Get Tested Coachella Valley has proved to be a tremendous success with a brilliant beginning. Their enthusiasm to stop the spread of HIV is the only thing they want to be contagious. So, Get Tested Coachella Valley!

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