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HIV Rapid Testing & Treatment Must Be a Priority at Fulton County Jail

As one of over 25,000 African Americans living with HIV in Atlanta and as the Georgia State Lead for Positive Women’s Network – USA, a national advocacy organization of women living with HIV, I was alarmed to hear the spokesperson for the Fulton County Sheriff’s Office tell Atlanta’s Project Q Magazine that the jail no longer conducts rapid HIV testing  because “rapid tests are considered antiquated.” This is inaccurate and dangerous. Fulton County Sheriff’s Office has disregarded the positive impact of rapid HIV testing in Fulton County Jail.

HIV testing and treatment—the literal foundation that allows us to identify and suppress HIV, the keys to preventing transmission —must be a priority strategy to end HIV/AIDS in the Atlanta area, where HIV rates resemble those of developing countries in Africa. As the Interim Vice Chair and only openly person living with HIV serving on The Fulton County HIV/AIDS Prevention, Care and Policy Advisory Committee-whom functions as an advisory committee to the Fulton County Board of Commissioners to advance the policies, objectives, and priorities outlined in the Strategy to End AIDS in Fulton County Phases I, II and Ill and any future reports, at the request of the Board of Commissioners, the Advisory Committee may be requested to provide input into Fulton County’s federal and state legislative packages. It’s paramount for me to analyze Fulton County Jail HIV testing and administration of antiretroviral medication processes, to able my ability to advise on improvements.

As a black woman who contracted HIV through heterosexual contact with a black man, I support offering rapid HIV testing to everyone who enters Fulton County jail, no matter how long or short their stay will be. Due to black men having uneven access to health care outside of jail and mass incarceration, Fulton County Jail is a hub of black men–who comprise the majority of new cases of HIV–and a critical place to conduct rapid HIV testing.

Early detection and access to antiretroviral medications, are essential for preventing the transmission of HIV. The choice of the Sheriff’s Office to not conduct rapid HIV testing will lead to later diagnosis and increased prevalence of HIV, even as cities like San Francisco and New York have achieved dramatic reductions in new cases of HIV through investments in prevention, testing, care, and services.

As reported by the CDC, in 2011, Fulton County Jail “implemented a demonstration project to integrate routine rapid human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) screening into the medical intake process. Without this, these people would likely have been diagnosed later, resulting in delayed access to care and treatment, worse health outcomes, and possible transmission of HIV to their partners.” Since about half of inmates leave jail within 48 hours to five days, rapid HIV testing when booked into jail is an important and effective public health measure. 

Fulton County investment in HIV testing has not kept pace with Atlanta’s HIV epidemic. According to the CDC’s 2016 HIV Surveillance Report, “Fulton County is one of the top 3 counties in Georgia with the highest HIV burden. Atlanta Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA) ranked 4th MSA with the highest rate of new HIV diagnoses in the US and Puerto Rico.” In Atlanta and across Georgia, far too many people – about 17% –are unaware that they are living with HIV, according to the Fulton County Board of Health. Many more struggle to access antiretroviral medications, which can suppress the virus to an undetectable level, preventing transmission. I agree with Project Q that “Lack of meds for HIV-positive Fulton inmates [is] ‘extremely alarming’” and must be a priority. 

Despite the growing need for testing and access to antiretroviral medications, there has been no urgency on the part of decision makers to remedy the situation. We must make a bold, sustained commitment to ensuring that everyone is tested for HIV and has access to antiretroviral medication. When we invest in testing and treatment, we invest in our community as a whole. If you are interested in joining me in this push, feel free to contact my organizations (see links below). 

Fulton County jail must expand testing and treatment investments, not stifle them. Rapid HIV testing in jails is an important step toward ending the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Atlanta. There is no excuse for this inaction. 

Shyronn Jones is the Georgia State Lead of Positive Women’s Network-USA (PWN-USA); Interim Vice Chair of The Fulton County HIV/AIDS Prevention, Care and Policy Advisory Committee and Founder of iknowAwareness LLC. She has amplified local, regional and nation issues to bring about political and social change.