Photo of a Palmetto Community Care van

Jason Kirk of Palmetto Community Care wants everyone to know that people who are living with HIV and AIDS are not alone.

"We are a resource for people in the tri-county area who are HIV positive," he said. "We are also dedicated to preventing HIV, and we help people remain HIV-negative."

Photo of HIV blood test

And as the director of development and marketing for Palmetto Community Care, a local nonprofit committed to HIV care and prevention located on Meeting Street Road in North Charleston, getting the word out about their services is of utmost importance to him and his team – especially now.

"The rates of HIV and AIDS are on the rise in the Charleston and North Charleston metropolitan areas," he remarked. "Rates are above where they should be."

Testing is probably one of the most valuable services available at Palmetto Community Care. They offer a completely confidential and free HIV test in their office or through their mobile testing van at events in the community.

"This test takes 20 minutes and can detect antibodies and antigens for the virus from contact as recent as one month versus up to three months for previous tests," he said.

If the patient tests positive, the Palmetto Community Care team immediately goes into action setting up doctor's appointments and other services the patient will need.

"We administer about 1,600 HIV tests per year and about 15 to 25 come back positive," he said.

Kirk said that Palmetto Community Care helps well over 500 clients annually and has been adding about 60 to 75 new HIV-positive patients each year.

Kirk said many find out their HIV status through their doctor, an ER visit or through other programs, but he added that the patients Palmetto Community Care sees often don't have a doctor.

"We are the first point of contact for so many people living with this disease," he said.

That's why when someone contacts Palmetto Community Care seeking assistance with their HIV-positive diagnosis, they are immediately assigned to a medical case manager who is trained to help with HIV-related services.

"It can be very hard to navigate for some," he said.

For example, Kirk pointed out that case managers will assess patients' needs for food and nutrition and connect them with safe and stable housing, legal assistance, unemployment services, mental health care, dental care and even substance abuse assistance if that is what is needed.

Medical case managers link patients to comprehensive medical care that can be lifesaving and also serve to educate them on preventing HIV transmission and teach them general healthy habits so they can achieve viral suppression.

Palmetto Community Care also offers support groups, which Kirk said are usually maxed out.

HIV prevention and outreach are just as important to the Palmetto Community Care team. Along with free and confidential HIV tests, they also offer free and confidential STI tests – also known as STD tests.

Palmetto Community Care has started offering the PrEP once daily pill that is up to 99 percent effective in preventing HIV.

"Our goal is get this medication to people who are at a high risk of contracting HIV at either a reduced cost or free," Kirk explained. "Having health insurance does help, but the goal is help everyone, even the uninsured, who are eligible to participate in this program if the need arises for them."

Participants in the PrEP program will be required to complete quarterly lab bloodwork, meet with a doctor quarterly and participate in adherence counseling with the Palmetto Community Care prevention staff.

Kirk said they have 15 active participants that take PrEP.

"It is an excellent option for sexual health and to keep our population HIV negative. PrEP is even more effective than condoms, which are only 90 percent effective," he said.

Kirk also mentioned how excited he and the other members of the Palmetto Community Care team are about partnering with the Truesdale Medical Center.

"It is an HIV medical center that just opened in November," he said. "They accept all patients through their primary care services but have a focus on HIV and AIDS. We are excited to have them as a partner to send our clients to for care."

The Truesdale Medical Center is located on Rivers Avenue in North Charleston. Appointments can be made by calling 843-266-3870.

There is so much the community can do to support Palmetto Community Care and the work they do. Dining with Friends is an event that will take place on Jan. 19. People can host their own parties to raise donations for the organization and then attend the after party at Memminger Auditorium.

"After a five-year hiatus, we are excited to bring this event back," Kirk said. "It was always a great success, and we look forward to hosting it again."

On May 18, Palmetto Community Care will host a Charleston Beer Fest at Riverfront Park, and the organization always hosts Gay Bingo at the Memminger Auditorium in August.

"Of course we have smaller events throughout the year as well," Kirk mentioned. "Like our celebration of World AIDS Day on Dec. 1 and many other events at breweries throughout the area called Pint of Hope."

Joining the Red Ribbon Society is another way the public can support Palmetto Community Care, as well sponsoring a fundraiser, volunteering at an event or just donating online.

"We've been in the community here for 27 years, and we have seen how the epidemic has changed and evolved," Kirk concluded. "It isn't as high-profile as it used to be, but it is still an epidemic. The South happens to be an epicenter. HIV and AIDS affects everyone. We are now seeing its effects in our aging population, too, not to mention that 34 percent of our clients are women. We are here to help, and we want people to know that they can come to us."

For more information on Palmetto Community Care, visit www.palmettocommunitycare.org or call 843-747-2273.

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