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FL Surgeon General Joseph Ladapo says he's 'committed' to reducing HIV spread at 'World AIDS Day' event

A man in a dark suit stands at a podium while two women sit at a table beside him.
Valerie Crowder
WFSU Public Media
Florida Surgeon General Joseph Ladapo says he's committed to reducing the spread of HIV statewide at Leon County's World AIDS Day event on Wednesday, Dec. 1, 2021.

Efforts to reduce Florida’s relatively high number of new HIV infections could amp up under the state's new surgeon general.

Speaking this week at Leon County’s World AIDS Day event, state Surgeon General Joseph Ladapo promised he and Lt. Gov. Jeannette Nunez would work to increase access to testing, treatment and prevention methods.

“We’re committed,” he said. “I'm certain that what we can do it, and I'm certain that we will do it.”

The Department of Health in Leon County hosted the educational outreach event, where HIV and AIDS counselors and treatment providers gave out information about their services, ate lunch and listened to Ladapo speak about how his office could work toward reducing new HIV infections.

“We recognize that there are a lot of really committed, really dedicated people out there to reducing the burden of HIV. I want you to know that we really want to partner with you,” he said. “I can personally attest that we’re really happy to hear ideas.”

The department didn’t alert news outlets ahead of time that Ladapo was speaking at the event, and he declined to answer questions related to tackling the state’s HIV epidemic.

More than 117,000 Floridians live with HIV, according to the latest state Department of Health data. In 2019, the state reported the highest number of new infections nationwide — 4,387 — to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Ladapo gave little detail about how the state plans to expand access to testing, though he praised the state’s rollout of rapid, at-home HIV tests, explaining that about 6,000 had been distributed since the program started. He promised the department would work to increase testing, describing it as a key first step to reducing the virus’ spread. The next step, he said, is treatment.

“When people do take antiretroviral therapy, and their viral loads are suppressed, their ability to transmit HIV is basically negligent."

Ladapo said people with limited resources could face barriers to treatment, which his office also plans to address. However, he didn’t give specifics on how officials would go about reducing those barriers.

Another key approach to reducing the number of new infections is prevention, which includes increasing access to a once-daily medication called pre-exposure prophylaxis or PREP, he said. “And one of the things my office will be doing will be digging into sort of where are there opportunities to improve access and connection to pre-exposure prophylaxis in Florida.”

Community HIV/AIDS outreach providers in Leon County share information about their services at the county's World AIDS Day event on Wednesday, Dec. 1, 2021.
Valerie Crowder
Community HIV/AIDS outreach providers in Leon County share information about their services at the county's World AIDS Day event on Wednesday, Dec. 1, 2021.

The state’s major metropolitan areas have the most HIV cases. Miami-Dade and Broward Counties are among the counties with the highest rate of new cases nationwide, according to the CDC.

In Leon County, 1,357 people were living with HIV at the end of 2020, according to county health department data.

“Even though we are not as large, if you were to scale down by population, we have an HIV epidemic that is very similar, on par, as you would have in the major metropolitan areas,” said James Easton, the HIV and AIDS program coordinator at the county’s health department. “There's still a lot of work that needs to be done in our community.”

African American residents face a greater risk of contracting HIV, Easton explained. “We do focus our efforts on the African American community because they’re disproportionately affected by HIV.”

Last year, about 68% of the county's 54 new HIV cases were among Black residents; about 26% were white and about 6% were Latino, according to the department.

Throughout the year, members of the department's HIV community outreach team hold pop-up events to educate people about testing, prevention and treatment options. “The engagement we do directly in the community is some of our most effective work,” Easton said. “They'll work weekend hours or work night hours to do it because they know that is the some of the best outreach and engagement times.”

The health department also brings in other community providers who offer free HIV testing, counseling, treatment and prevention methods, he said. “It takes a village, not just the partners — but the people in our community as well to come up and partner to help us truly this epidemic.”

One of those critical partners is the Minority Alliance for Advocating Community Awareness and Action, Inc. The organization offers free HIV testing, counseling, treatment, prevention and STD screening services, said Alyssa Crawford, MAACA outreach advisor. It also offers support to family members and friends of those diagnosed with HIV.

Crawford, 29, has lived with HIV since birth. She opened up publicly about her HIV-positive status when she was 19 years old. Part of her role is to provide peer support, something she says she lacked when she was a young teenager.

“People who were able to speak about it were older people, maybe they were men, just people who I did not identify with as a fourteen-year-old,” she said. “I wish I had someone like myself at that time, and that is one of the major reasons for the work that I do.”

Edit: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated Florida's number of new HIV cases was nearly 5,000 in 2019. The number of new cases that year was actually 4,387, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. A previous version also included an incorrect number of new HIV cases in Leon County for 2020 — there were 54 , not 17. There were 17 new AIDS cases in the county. About 68% of new HIV cases in the county were among Black residents.

Valerie Crowder is a freelance journalist based in Tallahassee, Fl. She's the former ATC host/government reporter for WFSU News. Her reporting on local government and politics has received state and regional award recognition. She has also contributed stories to NPR newscasts.