In great news, GMHC has won a renewal of $530,000 in annual funding from the NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene to support our Testing Center.
This five-year PlaySure Network 2.0 grant will fund our HIV testing, treatment, and prevention work, so that we can connect people living with HIV or vulnerable to HIV transmission with the care they need.
The grant is “crucial in making sure we can continue and expand the work we do in the Testing Center,” which is at the core of GMHC’s work to end the HIV and AIDS epidemic, said the Testing Center’s director, Omi Singh.
In addition to supporting two existing Prevention Navigators, who provide front-line HIV and STI testing and counseling, this grant will fund a new Linkage Navigation Specialist, who will offer greater day-to-day support and follow-up for clients who are at greater risk of falling out of care, because they have more complex medical and psychosocial service needs.
The grant also adds the services of a Behavioral Health Specialist to the testing team, who can refer clients to GMHC’s mental health and substance use treatment clinics for additional care.
“We approach this with a lot of care,” Singh added. “When somebody comes in for HIV testing, we end up speaking to them about a lot of their lives.”
The PlaySure Network launched in 2016 as a partnership between NYC and front-line community partners, like GMHC, as well as medical clinics, such as the Mount Sinai Institute for Advanced Medicine. The aim is to ensure New Yorkers at highest risk have access to HIV testing and treatment, as well as prevention medications, such as PrEP (pre-exposure prophylaxis), PEP (post-exposure prophylaxis), and other supportive services.
GMHC’s Testing Center offers free, confidential HIV and STI testing, as well as counseling and safer sex education, to anyone who comes in. Critically, the testing team links people to the medical care and supportive services they need.
The idea is to normalize HIV testing and treatment in a sex-affirming context. “All of our staff do their work with extreme sensitivity. We know people have anxiety around the process,” Singh said, particularly the stigma around HIV and the emotions that come up around living with HIV.
Prevention Navigators help clients work through the initial emotional reactions of testing HIV positive, she said, and immediately link them to a medical provider, such as Mount Sinai, to start antiretroviral treatment. Often, they even go with clients to their appointments.
Beyond testing, Prevention Navigators screen for mental health and substance use issues, and other factors that can increase vulnerability to HIV transmission, such as intimate partner violence and housing needs.
Prevention Navigators, and now, the Linkage Navigation Specialist, assess each client’s individual needs and connect them to medical, mental health and psychosocial care services, such as support groups. Often, they help clients navigate barriers to care, which includes accessing doctors and health insurance.
For people testing negative, Prevention Navigators help them craft a plan to reduce HIV risk factors. That could mean taking PrEP, but it depends on the person, Singh said. Using condoms and lubricant could also factor in, as well as reducing the number of sexual encounters while using drugs or alcohol.
While the pandemic affected the number of people seeking testing, the Testing Center assisted over 1,000 clients last year, Singh said. Annually, about 2% to 3% of Testing Center clients test positive for HIV, and GMHC links almost 100% of those testing positive to treatment and care.
The COVID-19 pandemic meant the Testing Center had to adapt to keep clients and staff safe. Clients can make appointments for on-site testing with a Prevention Navigator, or order an HIV self-testing kit, with follow-up counseling by phone. Testing for HIV and STIs is recommended at least annually, but Singh said some clients test as often as every three months, depending on their level of sexual activity and how they quantify risk.
Most clients are men who have sex with men, Singh said, but the Testing Center serves people of all genders and sexual orientations. “Anyone in need of services can come get them here.”