Philly Nonprofit Offers Free Self-Test Kits to Encourage HIV Testing at Home
AccessMatters wants to reduce stigma and keep at-risk populations safe from contracting COVID-19 while getting tested for HIV.
For more than 40 years, local non-profit AccessMatters has been working to equalize access to sexual and reproductive healthcare for teens and adults in the Philadelphia region. Through multi-pronged programs that offer assistance with everything from family planning and HIV testing to screening for the early detection of cervical and breast cancers, AccessMatters has supported hundreds of thousands of people in some of the hardest-to-reach populations in getting tested for sexually transmitted diseases, knowing their HIV status and living healthier lifestyles.
But many of the group’s efforts were threatened when the coronavirus pandemic made its way to Philadelphia in mid-March. AccessMatters’ vice president of health access and service delivery, LaToya Myers, says the group had to halt or reconfigure several programs that relied heavily on one-on-one interactions, including its popular mobile HIV testing program.
“We were doing a lot of community-based HIV testing before COVID hit. Then, suddenly, we saw all types of public health initiatives that involved one-on-one interactions like ours did almost immediately cease,” Myers explained. “We saw a significant drop in the number of people coming out to testing events.”
In the early weeks of the pandemic, Myers says the group went from seeing anywhere from 100 to 250 clients per month at mobile testing events to less than 20.
In June, AccessMatters partnered with the City of Philadelphia to begin offering free HIV self-testing kits, enabling city residents to confirm their HIV status in the privacy and safety of their own homes. The test itself is OraQuick, the first FDA-approved oral swab in-home test for HIV. Any Philadelphia resident above age 16 can request a free self-test kit by calling or sending a text to AccessMatters.
To increase awareness and encourage continued HIV testing despite the pandemic, AccessMatters launched an accompanying public health campaign entitled Life As We Know It, which specifically urges Black and Latinx men who are at high risk of contracting the virus to know their HIV status.
Black and Latinx men accounted for more than 70 percent of all new HIV diagnoses in Philadelphia in 2018, the most recent year for which the City has reported HIV data.
“We noticed from the statistics that Black and Latin American men were being disproportionately impacted by HIV. So, we wanted to ensure that we had programming that really focused on and targeted that population,” Myers said.
“Because of COVID, this new initiative allows us to have us an additional access point to provide services to a population that, from a public health perspective, really needs that extra attention.”
The program also includes counseling and ancillary support services, including step-by-step support through the testing process via telehealth, post-test counseling and referral services, and connection to a medical provider if the test result is positive.
While the program was created to adjust to coronavirus-related restrictions, Myers says AccessMatters intends to keep offering in-home HIV testing as an option for people who may not want to engage in testing in more traditional settings well beyond the pandemic.
“Even though COVID-19 is what really pushed us in this direction, we really feel like it’s something that we can utilize moving forward to have another access point for folks to engage with this care,” Myers said.