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World AIDS Day: Here's why health experts say Tampa Bay needs to pay attention

At health departments around Tampa Bay, free HIV tests and screenings were being offered Wednesday.

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — On this World AIDS Day, local public health workers say the Tampa Bay area has good reason to be particularly engaged in efforts to educate and eradicate HIV.

At health departments around Tampa Bay, free HIV tests and screenings were being offered.

“And it’s important we observe this every year because HIV infection and AIDS is still around,” Florida Department of Health in Pinellas County Spokesman Tom Iovino said.

In June, the CDC released the latest numbers and Florida had the most newly reported cases of any state. We also have the third-highest rate per 100,000 people. And an estimated 13 percent of those living with HIV, they found, don’t know they are infected.

“It’s troubling to think about that. You know – that we have so many people who are sick. Or HIV positive,” Iovino said. “And when one out of seven don’t know it – don’t know what their status is – that could spread it out."

In November, Tampa Mayor Jane Castor entered an initiative with 350 other cities, pledging to end the urban HIV epidemic by the year 2030.

The effort will direct resources into underserved and vulnerable populations, making sure they get resources needed to learn their status and get treatment.

“And we have come so far in treatment,” Mayor Castor said. “But we still have a journey to go.”

Michael Tollar, who was diagnosed with HIV in the mid-80s, recently told 10 Tampa Bay how different things were 40 years ago when the first cases of AIDS were being diagnosed in the U.S. – no life-sustaining medications, no rapid testing like there is now.

“Back in the 80s there wasn’t anything,” Tollar said. “We were just lambs being led to slaughter; you know?”

The COVID-19 pandemic, says health workers, has recently pushed AIDS out of the headlines, but it’s here.

And while an HIV diagnosis is no longer a death sentence, there’s concern about risky behavior among those who feel they can just take medicine now if they do get the virus.

“You know, when things like COVID come out, they are emergent. People try to focus more on that and less on these viruses that have been around and circulating,” Iovino said. “So, we really need people to understand the importance of knowing their HIV status. That’s really where it begins. You need to know if you’re HIV positive so you can protect those around you.”

Some local organizations were planning private events to read names and share stories in memory of those lost to the virus over the years.

At the Enoch Davis Center in St. Petersburg, health officials say there will be free food, entertainment and free HIV testing offered this coming Saturday as well.

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