Last week, the Mazzoni Center — an LGBTQ health services organization — announced a new program to test for HIV in Philadelphia communities: an at-home HIV test kit. This kit was developed in conjunction with the AIDS Activities Coordinating Office (AACO), which is an arm of the Philadelphia Department of Public Health.
“Those that came for a test were extremely grateful, which made it even more rewarding,” said Prevention Services Director Eric Paulukonis, “The Prevention Team wants to ensure that we are here for our community to help remind people that even in these unique times, knowing your status is important. Come find us for a take-home HIV test kit, PrEP information and referrals, and linkage to care for people living with HIV.
According to AIDSVu’s local data as of 2017, there are 19,147 people living with HIV in Philadelphia. Paulukonis oversees all community-based sexual health programming which he described as being primarily HIV prevention. The Mobile Testing Unit (MTU) is a service that, before the COVID-19 pandemic, deployed throughout the city to administer HIV tests to the community. After the pandemic hit, Mazzoni Center was forced to shut down many services on March 16 including the in-person testing initiative, the Washington West Project. Many of their services went virtual, others remained open such as pre-screened appointments and the center’s food bank, but the MTU unit was necessarily shut down.
Paulukonis said that the MTU unit would administer approximately 7,700 tests a year. After the pandemic hit, Pauluknois said he and his team were worried about what would happen to all those people who couldn’t access HIV tests. Only after staff members bravely volunteered to work directly in the community, did the idea strike Mazzoni Center’s Community Health Engagement Manager Vince Du and MTU Coordinator Geraldo Oyola to utilize at-home, self-administered HIV tests in order to limit contact with those who may be potential carriers of COVID-19.
The team’s first move was to develop a collaboration with AACO in order to get home HIV tests delivered to people’s houses. Paulukonis said that a problem arose when some who needed tests were not able to provide mailing addresses because these folks were either leading a transient life or were experiencing homelessness.
The MTU Take-Home HIV Test Initiative team is operated by on-the-ground staff including Prevention Specialists Summer Tarboro and Luis Noguera, Support Specialist Safiy Lee, STI Program Manager Shane Nieves, and Navigation Program Manager Nhakia Outland. Along with Paulukonis, this team risks their lives daily to not only administer HIV tests but educate and inform the community on HIV prevention, management and treatment.
Via the mobile unit, the team hands out free HIV tests to anyone who needs one. To get a test, recipients must give their name and contact information. Paulukonis said that the MTU collects less information than a walk-in clinic might, but that all personal information is, of course, kept confidential. The take-home HIV tests are FDA-approved oral swabs. As per the FDA’s website, the way it works is to swab one’s upper and lower gums and then insert the swab into a vial provided in the kit which contains a developer solution. Within 20-40 minutes, results should be ready. Paulukonis said that there is a possibility that false-positives or false-negatives can happen, but the chances are slim. Regardless of results, Mazzoni Center will follow up within two weeks of a person receiving a test to discuss options for prevention or treatment.
Paulukonis relayed that the MTU hasn’t been able to deploy due to the recent curfews enacted by the city. Yet, now that it looks like curfews are no longer taking effect, the MTU will be able to start its work again. The MTU’s usual locations are at the CVS at Broad and Girard in North Philly and the Bankers Plaza on Fox Street in Upper North Philly. Paulukonis said that the MTU has plans to offer mobile services and test kits in West Philadelphia by July.
To request an HIV test kit or more information visit: mazzonicenter.org/mobile-testing-unit-request-application