Brittany Maksimovic, our manager of testing services, explains the ins and outs of HIV testing and gives an update on the foundation’s testing services.
Every year, San Francisco AIDS Foundation provides more than 13,000 free HIV tests to the community. In addition to testing at Strut, our office at 1035 Market Street and the 6th Street Harm Reduction Center, the mobile testing team does outreach at events and locations across the city.
Brittany Maksimovic, San Francisco AIDS Foundation testing services manager describes the services provided during an HIV test.
What kind of HIV tests does San Francisco AIDS Foundation use?
We offer a rapid HIV test at all of our locations. This test, called a STAT-PAK test, requires a few drops of blood which we collect with a finger stick. (If you are receiving more comprehensive sexually transmitted infection testing at the same time, we’ll collect a full tube of blood.) The rapid HIV test is an antibody test, which means that it detects your body’s response to an HIV infection (antibodies). If antibodies are detected, HIV could be present, and we’ll do further testing. If not, we can assume that HIV is not present.
The thing is, it can take your body between three and six weeks after an HIV infection to start producing those antibodies. So if you get tested with a rapid HIV test very soon after an HIV infection, the test might still come back as negative. This period of time—when a person is HIV-positive but when the test still says they’re HIV-negative—is called the “window period.”
It can create a lot of anxiety for people—just having to wait out that window period. Thankfully, we are able to offer an RNA test, too. This test is an actual viral load test for HIV. It’s measuring the actual amount of the virus in your body. The window period for this test is only two weeks.
The RNA test is another blood test. This one takes a full tube of blood. RNA tests take 7 – 10 days to be processed though the city’s Department of Public Health lab. We can offer this test to clients who are most at risk of HIV, including men who have sex with men, trans individuals, people who inject and people who engage in sex work. While clients do have to wait for their results to come back, having the RNA test can be a relief for those who would otherwise have to wait out the window period for the rapid (antibody) test.
Do you test for anything else other than HIV?
The mobile testing unit (and of course our sexual health clinic Magnet (470 Castro Street)) offers a full sexual health screening. That includes a rapid HIV test, an HIV RNA test, a syphilis test, a chlamydia test and a gonorrhea test. We also offer a hepatitis C test for those who are at risk for hepatitis C. At our main office (1035 Market Street) and at our SAS sites (the 6th Street Harm Reduction Center and mobile sites) we offer HIV testing and hepatitis C testing.
If I’m HIV-positive, how will you let me know?
We offer a full counseling session for people who take rapid HIV tests. Please stick around to talk to one of our counselors, because this is when they will disclose to you.
One of our counselors will bring you into a counseling room, disclose and do a check in. We’ll help you process the news and make steps to move forward and connect with resources and care. We’re here to support you whether your test is negative or positive.
We’ll tell you directly, face-to-face, if you get a rapid test and are taking part in a counseling session. If you received an RNA test, the test results will be processed at Magnet. When they see an RNA test that is reactive (positive), they’ll contact you and make sure they can get you into the clinic for a care and treatment session.
I’m afraid to get tested because I might be HIV-positive. What should I do?
I understand when people are concerned about their status. I’ve had people who have walked up to get tested and said, “No, I’m feeling a little too anxious, I don’t think today is the day.”
I always like to remind people that if they’re standing right in front of me, it’s clear that they’re trying to take care of themselves and their health. It shows that they care about their health and their partners’ health.
I like to say that it’s good to get tested. And I remind people that we’re here to support you no matter what your result is. Knowledge is power! We’ll make your test quick and painless as possible. We can’t force anyone to get a test, but we’ll encourage you and give you the facts and information you need to make a decision.
And if you do test positive, our Health Navigation case managers can help link you to care and support programs that you're interested in.
How often do I need to get an HIV test?
It depends on your level of risk. For folks in higher risk categories, we recommend every three months. Folks on PrEP get tested quarterly, so every three months as well. There are folks that might get a test once a year, because they’re at lower risk—this might include people who are heterosexual or who have one sexual partner.
It’s a personal decision—it’s not really one-size-fits all. We can talk about your individual activities and behaviors and help you figure out what makes sense.
What’s your favorite part about your job?
I love being able to work with clients from so many different backgrounds. Our team provides screenings for programs and services across the agency, and we often act as a client’s first link to other San Francisco AIDS Foundation services.
But my favorite part is being able to make space for people to talk about very personal, important issues in their lives like sexual behavior and substance use. It’s powerful and amazing to hear people open up about things that can be considered shameful, and to shed light on subjects that aren’t often discussed.
When we carry shame around, we might not resolve our problems in ways that lead to healthy growth. Further barriers and issues can be created when we don’t address shame. Nurturing an environment where we can sit down and have these one-on-one conversations—where clients are able to talk about these emotionally-loaded subjects—is the best part of my job. Just like the sign on the mobile testing unit says, “No shame, no blame.”
Need to get an HIV or STI test? Find more information about how and where to get tested.
The best way to fight HIV is to know your status. A simple test can determine if you are infected with the virus.
Our diverse programs help thousands of people every year. From testing to prevention to care, our services assist communities where need is greatest.