Today HIV is a highly-manageable health condition thanks to advancements in treatment, advocacy and community services. With ongoing care and support, people who are infected can live long, prosperous lives, just like Gulfport resident and ASAP volunteer Greg Stemm.
In a recent TV interview, Stemm credited his long-term survival in part to the ongoing support from ASAP (AIDS Service Association of Pinellas), a nonprofit and Empath Health member organization serving those in Pinellas County impacted by HIV/AIDS for nearly 30 years. “I’ve lived with the disease for 24 years. I believe that one of the reasons why I’ve been around so long is because I’ve had great support from organizations like ASAP,” he said.
State of HIV
HIV and AIDS, the deadly disease caused by the HIV virus, emerged in the 1980’s and continues to plague our world. Some 36.9 million people worldwide are known to be infected, primarily in sub-Saharan Africa, according to AIDS.gov global statistics. Many more are living undiagnosed. There’s still no cure but it can be treated, controlled and prevented. A recent champion of the cause working to keep HIV at the forefront, especially among youth, is Prince Harry. He got tested himself to show how quick and simple it can be and was determined HIV-negative.
Anyone is susceptible to HIV/AIDS but certain populations are particularly affected. HIV and other STIs (sexually-transmitted infections) currently are on the rise among Hispanic and black gay and bisexual men having sex with men and young people ages 15 to 25. Women of color are at high risk of HIV contraction and related deaths. Some geographic areas are seeing increased rates as well, including Tampa Bay and South Florida. And many of those who are infected face stigma, discrimination, lack of access to care and other challenges.
“We’re seeing a lot of the younger population coming in, including younger black men having sex with men. We’re seeing one person per week who’s newly-diagnosed, which is new for us. Our positive rate is 2% or higher, which means we’re testing the right communities and they’re finding us. We do a lot of testing at our Flamingo Resort office in St. Petersburg,” said Sheryl Hoolsema, ASAP’s HIV services manager.
Our specially-trained staff and volunteers at ASAP have delivered a wide range of comprehensive care and support services that significantly improve quality of life for our infected clients, families and many others in the community affected. We offer prevention education; free testing; medical case management; PrEP, mental health, medication adherence and dietary counseling; financial support; food and personal needs pantry; and support groups.
Partnering, Growing and Saving More Lives
Together with support from our community partners and donors, we have expanded our reach beyond Pinellas to help a great number of people in need in Tampa Bay. Most recently, we have been granted additional funding for our pantry and have planned to merge with Francis House in Tampa. Our soon-to-be formed organization will provide a combination of programs and services to more than 10,000 clients. In operation since 1990, Francis House provides a day center, meals, housing assistance and more, and is the only Housing Opportunities for Persons with HIV/AIDS-funded supportive services agency in the area that focuses on supportive services.
Last year we opened our new office on St. Joseph Hospital’s Tampa campus and this past February opened our Home 3050 HIV services medical home with Pinellas Care Clinic and Empath Health on Empath’s St. Petersburg campus. At Home 3050, our clients can come to a one-stop location for all of their ASAP services, primary care and a pharmacy, which gives back 100% of its dollars to client care.
Helping oversee our new programming is operations manager David Franks. He has worked in the AIDS services and patient advocacy fields for several years and is a wholehearted advocate for community service. “I really see being human is to be in service. This work is so personal and meaningful to me because my community and family have been so directly impacted by HIV,” he said.
As we work each day to fully embrace and support every client and family so they can live healthy, productive lives, Franks shared, “It’s truly life-changing care. We have saved lives by getting people into care, whether they’re newly-diagnosed or in critical stages of their health. By putting together a good care team, we’re able to bring them back to better health. Beforehand they may have felt overwhelmed, worthless, isolated and alone. But now they can feel self-revealing, trusting, worthwhile and part of a community.”
He sees our strength in providing multiple services. “Prevention has always been a major core of our approach to this epidemic, including testing at our offices, churches, and street corners and other stops with our mobile unit. We reach out to a diverse population with a diverse staff. Our volunteer program gives people a chance to put their skills and hearts to helping our community. We have a growing pantry. And we have a continuity of care with Empath Health, which is becoming a more critical need to caring for our aging HIV population’s health and well-being. Empath Health member Suncoast PACE offers all-inclusive senior care that might help our older clients struggling to live independently at home,” he said.
Each year we continue to adapt in order to best meet our clients’ needs. “The course of treating the disease has changed and we have the ability to be ahead of and respond to these changes. We’ve listened to our clients wanting one place to go for all of their care and pharmacy needs with our Home 3050 medical home. We’ve got a great facility and staff to serve our community. ”
HIV/AIDS first became known when it spread throughout the U.S. in 1981. At that time, it appeared to primarily infect gay men through sex, and they would often die swift, agonizing deaths. Soon, through research and care, the medical community found that AIDS was transmittable to additional populations through sex, blood transfusions or sharing drug needles.
In the late 1980’s, we began providing services, education and testing in our local community as three organizations known as FACT, IMPACT and ACP. Around 1987, those three joined together to form ASAP.
“In our early years, a lot of our staff were VISTA volunteers. Over time, we’ve probably tripled in staff, give or take some years due to decreases in funding. We always have had a community approach. We do whatever it takes as an agency, and with the backing of Empath Health, to find and provide what our clients and families need,” Hoolsema said.
With her combined 20 years with ASAP and Suncoast Hospice, Hoolsema remains a passionate leader in our mission. She shared, “I started doing this type of work in school. One of my dearest friends was diagnosed when I was serving those who were dying of HIV/AIDS at our Woodside hospice house (now called the Care Center Mid-Pinellas). The infections were just coming out and people were at death’s door. We saw a need for case management, financial assistance and access to treatment. I had a desire to make a difference and to do everything I could to help.”
Our growth with ASAP and the Empath Health network helps support everyone in our community challenged by illness with compassion and excellent care. Empath Health President and CEO Rafael J. Sciullo shared, “This is an exciting time because we’re continuing to fulfill our mission and increasing our depth and impact in a very important way. We offer a large scope of services. We’re always asking how we can do more. Our goal is to create the best healthcare experiences people can have. We provide support through every step of the journey and always put our clients, patients and families first.”
Ready to get tested? Stop by for a free test at our locations or mobile unit.