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High HIV levels hit sign of slowing in Orange County, state says

This human T cell (blue) is under attack by HIV (yellow), the virus that causes AIDS. The virus specifically targets T cells, which play a critical role in the body's immune response against invaders like bacteria and viruses.
Credit: Seth Pincus, Elizabeth Fischer and Austin Athman, National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases/NIH

For the last five years, Orange County has ranked as one of the states highest case totals for new HIV infections. But last year, the Florida Department of Health saw a slight slow down in the virus' transmission rate around the county, seeing a 5% decrease in the relative change of diagnoses made. 

The stat change is welcome news to the state, which has an aggressive goal to reduce HIV cases by 75% by 2025 and 90% by 2030 via diagnosis treatment, and education plans, said Kara Williams, a Central Florida HIV program manager for the FDOH.

“I know it's a really ambitious goal," Williams said. "Even if it's not reached, I believe that through those different efforts, we'll be able to reach a whole subset of people who may not have known their status, or not even know the importance of knowing their status." 

For the time being, it's too early to tell if the FDOH's Central Florida efforts are responsible for the drop in transmissions or if COVID-19 played a role, Williams said.

Orlando has the 2nd highest case rate in the country

Since 2017, Orange County has averaged 440 new cases of HIV per year in the last five years and makes Florida’s top 3 counties for HIV transmission. However, Orlando ranked No. 2 in metropolitan areas throughout the country, ahead of Atlanta, Georgia and behind Miami, according to the FDOH.

Over all, Florida has second-highest national new case total per year, according to the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention. FDOH data shows the state averages 4,400 new cases per year since 2017.

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*HIV diagnoses by year of diagnosis represent persons whose HIV was diagnosed in that year, regardless of AIDS status at time of diagnosis. HIV and AIDS data are not mutually exclusive and should not be added together.[/caption]

In 2019, new HIV cases were running high across the county, which led to then U.S. President Donald Trump vowing to end the HIV epidemic in America during his State of Union address. CDC data shows that in 2019, more than 1 million Americans had HIV, with about 40,000 new cases every year.

Tackling the issue head on, Williams, who manages prevention strategies for Orange, Osceola, Seminole and Brevard counties, began administering a "four pillar" plan to reduce case numbers. The pillars included priorities to diagnose, prevent, treat, and respond.  The big emphasis is to diagnosis, the idea being that diagnosing individuals as quickly as possible and giving them access to their status might halt the virus in its tracks. However, FDOH faces an upward battle in convincing people to test more due to the stigma associated with HIV.

"I mean, stigma can affect anyone from even thinking that they need an HIV test," Williams said. "But one thing that we're trying to do is really make sure we empower individuals to take control of their sexual health, empower individuals to be more open with who they are as a person."

Battling the stigma

To battle the stigma, the Central Florida prevention team began bumping up its testing visibility by partnering with social media influencers; like 104.5 the Beat's Koiya McElroy, and local organizations such as QLatinx. The latter resulted in Latinx Culture and Health Festival earlier in October at Lake Eola. The festival was originally supposed to intended to take place at the end of Hispanic Heritage month but was delayed due to Hurricane Ian. The FDOH's testing organization, Talk Test Treat Central Florida succeeded in testing 20 people at the festival.

In its efforts to normalize testing, TTT Central Florida has seen an increase of interest in its at home test kits. The kits were first used in 2020 as COVID-19 spread through the area and people quarantined to reduce transmission of the virus, Williams said.

“I really feel like at first, it was just something that we did for COVID, just to be able to provide access," she said. "But then once we started seeing that we were getting a lot of requests, I didn't want to just cut it. And it's just another means of access for individuals."

Between July and September, the Central Florida department has had 335 requests for at home test kits, Williams said.