published Wednesday, February 9th, 2011

Hundreds take voluntary HIV screenings

  • photo
    Samantha Reese, a HIV tester and councilor with Chattanooga CARES, performs a voluntary swab test on an unidentified inmate at the Hamilton County Jail on Tuesday.
    Staff Photo by Dan Henry

After answering a few brief questions, Vicki Price swabbed the inside of her mouth and waited.

In 20 minutes, she would learn if she was HIV positive.

"I guess it's just a good thing to know," she said.

Price, 56, of Chattanooga, was booked into the Hamilton County Jail on Tuesday morning on a theft charge, according to the jail website.

She is one of hundreds of inmates at the jail who are now offered free HIV testing through Chattanooga CARES, a local nonprofit organization that specializes in HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment.

The testing program was started through the Tennessee Department of Health, which obtained a $75,000 grant through the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for local use over a three-year period. It takes about 20 minutes to get results back.

Price, who tested negative for HIV, said she had not been tested since the early 1990s. While she did not expect to test positive and has been married for years, she said she did it for peace of mind.

"I think it's great. I had no idea it would be so quick," she said.

Hamilton County Jail Deputy Chief Tim Gobble said a majority of people who are booked into the jail are choosing to take the test.

"The purpose is to identify people who might be carriers and not know it," Gobble said. "It's a public safety issue."

According to CDC statistics, 21 percent of all HIV-infected people are unaware of their positive status.

The jail does not separate inmates who are HIV positive from the general jail population, which averages about 520 inmates.

Since the testing began on Jan. 3, two inmates tested HIV positive, said Samantha Reese, HIV testing and counseling specialist with Chattanooga CARES, who works at the jail-based testing site.

While overall statistics of the test results are shared with jail administrators, individuals' test results are not disclosed.

"We want everyone to know this confidential and for their benefit," Reese said.

From Jan. 3 to Jan. 31, a total of 593 tests were administered at the jail, said Jerry Evans, assistant executive director of Chattanooga CARES. During the same time period, 1,365 inmates were initially processed at the jail.

The program is also set up at jails in Nashville and Memphis.

Evans said 70 percent of people tend bail out of the Hamilton County Jail within 24 hours. For those that test positive, a second test is administered and sent to a lab.

"This is very manageable, but you still have to go to the doctor and take care of yourself," said Evans, noting that about 100 people test HIV positive in Southeast Tennessee every year. Nationally, 55,000 become infected every year, according to CDC statistics.

Jail and prison populations tend to have a slightly higher positive rate, Evans said, because many people who are arrested participate in illegal drug use and sharing needles or participate in other risky behaviors.

Kenneth Matthews, 23, of Chattanooga, who was being booked for contempt of court Tuesday morning, chose to take the test after recently having unprotected sex.

"The other night I forgot to put a condom on," he said.

Without the program offered in the jail, it's unlikely he would get tested on his own, he said.

He tested negative.

"That's a blessing," Matthews said when he was notified of his preliminary results just before heading into a secure cell.

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