After Sara Vincelli, RN, BSN, began working as a cardiovascular nurse at J.W. Ruby Memorial Hospital, she became interested in looking for volunteer opportunities with the WVU Positive Health Clinic which provides services to HIV-positive patients in northern West Virginia and surrounding areas.
Within the last five years, HIV cases in West Virginia have risen and continue to rise.
“There is a perception that HIV is just in big cities,” said Vincelli. “There are a lot of people who don’t know how prevalent HIV is in West Virginia.”
West Virginia has experienced more than four HIV outbreaks over the last five years, particularly affecting Kanawha County and Cabell County.
Last year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) named the current HIV outbreak in Charleston and Kanawha County as one of the “most concerning outbreaks in the nation,” according to Vincelli.
In February 2020, she joined the MidAtlantic AIDS Education and Training Center (MAAETC), an organization focused on providing HIV and AIDS education to healthcare providers, and a partner of WVU School of Medicine.
The group is dedicated to raising awareness around HIV prevention, education and care.
As cases have continued to rise, the COVID-19 pandemic has made it difficult for people to obtain necessary resources and testing.
“There is a lack of testing and resources available as more resources have been devoted to fighting the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Vincelli. “But these outbreaks are a problem we have seen for over five years now.”
Vincelli also believes that the current political climate is impacting the way HIV outbreaks are combatted across the country,
“Scott County, Indiana created a harm reduction program due to their HIV outbreak several years ago. However, due to the political climate, this harm reduction program was shut down last summer,” Vincelli said.
Harm reduction programs typically offer opioid overdose prevention education and training and distribution of the overdose-reversal drug, naloxone (Narcan), and exchange sterile syringes for used ones to decrease HIV and hepatitis C transmission.
Testing is key
To begin combatting these outbreaks, Robin Pollini, Ph.D., MPH, associate professor in the Department of Behavioral Medicine & Physiatry and Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics has worked with the WVU Positive Health Clinic to begin offering anonymous testing in Cabell County.
A grant provided through Gilead Science’s FOCUS Program has also allowed the J.W. Ruby Memorial Hospital Emergency Medicine Department and the WVU Medicine Suncrest Towne Centre Urgent Care Clinicto offer universal HIV and hepatitis C screening.
Continuing education for frontline providers
In July 2021, MAAETC partnered with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources to create an HIV outbreak curriculum that has been offered virtually for healthcare providers.
“The curriculum provides trainings on HIV testing, compassion fatigue due to the COVID-19 pandemic, harm reduction and pre-exposure prophylaxis to prevent HIV acquisition,” said Vincelli.
While efforts are being made to combat current outbreaks, Vincelli believes there is still more work to be done to prevent future outbreaks in the state.
“It would be wonderful to promote continued universal HIV screening within primary care practice, emergency departments, medication-assisted treatment centers for substance use disorder and urgent care clinics,” Vincelli said.
Raising awareness about the current state of HIV in West Virginia and what efforts can be made among healthcare providers is Vincelli’s biggest goal.
“As healthcare providers, we have the opportunity to meet people where they are and offer preventative services and universal testing as recommended by the CDC,” said Vincelli.
Vincelli hopes by raising awareness, healthcare providers can work together to combat HIV in West Virginia.
For resources on HIV in West Virginia visit https://oeps.wv.gov/hiv-aids/pages/default.aspx#box, http://www.maaetc.org/ and http://medicine.hsc.wvu.edu/wvu-positive-health-clinic.