Fulton County officials unveiled an ambitious plan to eradicate HIV in the state's most populous county, an effort that would dramatically expand HIV testing, boost prevention efforts like condom giveaways and PrEP, bolster HIV education and move people with HIV more quickly into care.
"In Atlanta in 2016, we have the opportunity to lay the groundwork to end AIDS," said Fulton Commissioner Joan Garner (top photo), who is gay. "Not this year, not next year but within our lifetime, we could see an end to AIDS."
The multifaceted strategy was released with the help of county leaders, local health officials and U.S. Rep. John Lewis during a press conference on Monday. The timing and location of the event offered symbolic importance. It came on National HIV Testing Day during an event at the Center for Civil & Human Rights, which tucked into downtown Atlanta is located in the heart of the Fulton's HIV problem – among the worst in the country.
The county's plan is the work of the 14-member Fulton County Task Force on HIV/AIDS, which was created in December 2014 after startling statistics showed that Fulton is a leader for new HIV infections, that 15,000 people with HIV/AIDS live in Fulton – nearly half of all people with HIV/AIDS in the 20-county Atlanta region, and that the disease disproportionately impacts young gay black men in the county.
"Over the last 18 months, the task force has rolled up their sleeves, put their thinking caps on, engaged with the community and have come up with very dynamic and bold recommendations," Fulton Commission Chair John Eaves (top photo) said.
"We want to be number one in action and number one in advocacy," he added.
The task force's efforts come in three parts – draft objectives published last December, more detailed action steps offered on Monday, and targets, timelines and costs to be released this December.
Recommendations from the task force center on four key goals – reducing new HIV infections by 25 percent by 2020, increasing access to care, reducing HIV-related disparities and health inequities, and building a more coordinated response to the epidemic, according to Wendy Armstrong, who co-chairs the task force with Daniel Driffin.
"Every part of the county, every district, has an issue with HIV/AIDS," Armstrong said. "The problem with HIV is that while it can impact anyone, it is also a disease of inequality."
The areas in Fulton most impacted by HIV are also the most economically disadvantaged areas of the county, Armstrong added.
'We have the momentum'
But the task force's report issued on Monday is not all goals and strategy. Health officials are working to "quickly and aggressively" implement the highest-impact recommendations, according to Kathleen Toomey (second photo), director of the county's health department.
That includes boosting the county's HIV prevention efforts through expanding its PrEP clinic, which opened in February, HIV tests and clinics that can rapidly move people newly diagnosed with the disease into care, Toomey said.
"This is an historic event in our march to address HIV/AIDS in Fulton County," Toomey said. "We have the commitment. We have the momentum. We can make this happen. Our time is now."
The report released on Monday offers several specific steps to fight HIV in the county:
- Providing free, routine opt-out HIV testing in all healthcare settings and jails to decrease the number of new HIV diagnoses by 25 percent and increase the percentage of HIV-positive people who know their status to 90 percent.
- Provide PrEP for people without HIV and expand awareness and access throughout the county, including colleges, healthcare facilities and community groups.
- Increase the number of free condoms distributed to people with HIV and at high risk for the disease to 3.5 million, up from 2.3 million given out in 2015. Distribution sites to include bars, sex clubs, HIV care sites and possibly online.
- Provide syringes for injection drug users regardless of HIV status.
- Link pregnant women to prenatal care and test pregnant women for HIV.
- Work with schools in Atlanta and Fulton to offer HIV and sex education to students.
- Provide housing to people living with HIV/AIDS who need it.
- Improve the continuum of care so that 85 percent of people who test positive for HIV are linked to care within three days.
HIV 'stigma must end'
A key priority of the report also called for efforts to reduce stigma around HIV, whether in healthcare services, employment, housing, churches or laws that criminalize the disease.
"In the wake of Orlando, there is no way anyone can deny that stigma kills," said Melanie Thompson, a task force member who also edited the report release on Monday.
HIV stigma keeps people from getting care, taking their medications and living a fulfilling life, Thompson added.
"We have to stop tolerating stigma. Stigma must end in order to end this epidemic," she said.
Lewis (third photo) cheered on the task force and the work of county health officials. His Atlanta-based 5th Congressional District seat includes areas of Fulton hardest hit by HIV.
"Every day too many people lose their lives to this disease," Lewis said. "In Fulton County, in Georgia and in America itself, we can no longer be silent. We have to speak up and speak out – make a little noise."