Mobile Testing Team Rolling into Unexpected Spaces

Do you get tested for HIV and other sexually transmitted infections after a great workout at the gym? Or before attending a bondage event at San Francisco’s kinky coffee shop Wicked Grounds?

People in San Francisco are starting to do just that—and get tested for HIV and other sexually transmitted infections at unexpected places—because of the mobile testing unit of San Francisco AIDS Foundation.

“My challenge, to my team, was to think about the different events, and spaces, that we frequent on a regular basis—because we are all queer, and should have access to testing services. We wanted to think about creative ways we could find different communities that weren’t being reached by the many testing services offered in the Castro,” said Joshua O’Neal, manager of testing services.

The mobile testing unit offers clients a rapid HIV test in addition to an RNA test (with a two-week window period which can detect more recent infections). The mobile testing unit team also offers testing for asymptomatic sexually transmitted infections  including gonorrhea, chlamydia and syphilis.   

The team contributed ideas for spaces, events and populations in San Francisco they could reach, and set to work planning the logistics of testing shifts in these new locations. They have now extended their reach to substance-free spaces, gyms, sports and athletic events, community event spaces and even more neighborhoods including the Outer Mission and SOMA.

“Many people in our community are not active substance users, so it was important for us to think about how we would reach and engage those folks,” said O’Neal. “We connected with Castro Country Club—a sober space in the Castro—to do testing there. We also wanted to connect with different segments of the queer community, so we do testing at events at places in SOMA, which is part of an old-school queer culture, and at queer events in the Outer Mission.”

The team now does testing outside Fitness SF, and plans to extend screening services to gay sporting events and club sports teams. This summer, O’Neal said he plans to have his team test at cruising spots in San Francisco, such as Marshall Beach.

“Marshall Beach is a gay, naked cruising beach—and it’s definitely high traffic on a sunny day. We could pull our mobile testing unit into the parking lot there, and catch people on their way back from the beach.”

The team also focuses on brining testing services to queer populations outside of the gay male community. Last month, they tested at an event for transgender people at ClubOMG, and also did full screenings for National Transgender HIV Testing Day at Strut.

“Event organizers and bar owners and managers are typically happy to have us show up to test when we approach them about collaborating,” said O’Neal. “They realize that it benefits their customers—and benefits them if they are part of the queer community. Sometimes they help us put up flyers for the event, or will advertise testing services in their newsletters.”

The mobile testing team’s creative approach is bringing in more clients than ever before. A typical four-hour shift will bring in 20 to 25 people on a busy day. Over a span of nine months, from July 2015 to March 2016, the team tested over 800 people and detected six HIV infections. Over the same time period, the team detected at least 80 asymptomatic gonorrhea, chlamydia and syphilis infections and referred those people for treatment.

O’Neal attributes the mobile testing team’s success to the ability his staff have to connect and engage with clients.

“We have staff across the gender spectrum and from many different cultural and ethnic backgrounds. They’re able to build trust with clients—get them to trust us, open up to us, and keep coming back. I’m impressed by the following we have. People look on our calendar, know where we’re going to be, and have heard of us. We get a lot of repeat customers.”

The San Francisco AIDS Foundation Mobile Testing Unit offers HIV and sexually transmitted infection testing at a number of locations across San Francisco. Look online to find the schedule of locations and times.

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