'Normalcy is possible': the state of HIV on the South Plains
Lauren Corbin has been working with people who have human immunodeficiency virus for almost 16 years and she cannot imagine doing anything else.
“It’s my passion at this point,” she said. “It is not something that I thought that I would work in for a long time. I thought that it’d be great to get some experience in case management and the field and then maybe do that for a few years and move on. But I’m not moving on.”
Corbin is the lead medical case manager and housing project coordinator with Project CHAMPS, The Community Action Health Access & Multi-Program Services.
A program from South Plains Community Action Association, or SPCAA, Project CHAMPS is dedicated to providing medical assistance to those with HIV.
The program is funded federally through the Ryan White HIV/AIDS Treatment Modernization Act and grant money.
As a caseworker with Project CHAMPS, Corbin helps clients establish treatment plans and get medication. Clients can also connect with SPCAA navigators to help find a health insurance plan that works best for them.
Not only does Corbin feel an obligation to her clients, she said she has fallen in love with Lubbock’s HIV population and with trying to improve upon the unique challenges her job presents.
One of the primary challenges facing those living with HIV- and those advocating for them- is stigma.
Corbin has had clients who were kicked out of their homes when they told their families about their diagnosis. But whether they have a support system or need to create one, she said reaching out is often the hardest step.
“It’s probably very scary to be in their shoes and to come into this brand new thing they have to deal with that maybe they’ve only seen in movies and usually it’s not a great outcome,” Corbin said.
Education, awareness, and visibility are priorities when it comes to HIV, for SPCAA and the City of Lubbock.
Madeline Geeslin is health promotion manager for Lubbock Public Health. She oversees the department’s HIV outreach team.
Funded by the state health department, the Street Outreach team started in January 2020 with the goal of increasing access to HIV and STD testing in the community, in nontraditional settings.
The Street Outreach team is composed of community members, which Geeslin said extends their reach to people who may be uncomfortable walking into a clinic or dealing with clinicians. The team has been able to develop a rapport and sense of trust with those it serves.
The HIV outreach team’s page on the city health department’s website lists the members cell phone numbers, Geeslin explained, so that people can text rather than call for an appointment.
“They will drop what they’re doing and go wherever people are, to test them,” Geeslin said. “Whether it’s at people’s houses, in a motel parking lot, in the grocery store parking lot, or at a community event or other venue.”
Geeslin said the HIV stigma is pervasive, including when it comes to testing. Her team attends many events and she said even if people do not get tested at the event, just showing up and being seen plays a part in normalizing HIV testing.
“There’s still this trouble around normalizing routine testing as just another part of your health care, like getting your annual physical or going to the dentist,” she said.
Here in Lubbock, Geeslin has spoken with people who did not know that HIV is still a prevalent issue, or did not think it was in their communities. She has also encountered some who see it as a death sentence and others who are too cavalier about a potential diagnosis.
The City of Lubbock Health Department’s clinic diagnosed more than twice as many new cases of HIV in 2023 as it did in 2022, Geeslin said.
According to statistics from HIV.gov, the estimated number of new HIV infections in the United States declined 12% from 2017 to 2021. Texas, on the other hand, saw an increase of new diagnoses in 2022, after maintaining consistency for almost a decade, according to the 2022 Texas HIV Program Annual Report.
There was also a 12 percent increase of Texans living with HIV over the past five years, which the report explained was “due to the efficacy of treatment rather than an increase in the number of people acquiring HIV each year.”
“It’s not a death sentence anymore,” Geeslin said. “It doesn’t even necessarily have to dramatically change your life.”
Geelsin explained that most people who take their medication long enough become virally suppressed, or undetectable, and can no longer transmit HIV to their partners.
“The earlier you start on meds, the more likely you are to reach that viral suppression and to be able to attain that undetectable status,” Geeslin explained. “With early intervention, normalcy is possible.”
Geeslin recommended most people get tested annually, or every time they get a new partner, but suggested testing every 3 to 6 months for those who are higher risk.
If there is a known exposure to HIV within the last 72 hours, Geeslin said to go to the emergency room, where people can receive post-exposure prophylaxis, an intensive regimen which can block the acquisition of HIV.
For those looking at a longer time-frame following a potential exposure, Geeslin suggested getting tested and working with the health department staff to establish a plan moving forward, whether the test results are positive or negative.
To avoid contracting HIV, Geeslin recommended adopting safer sex practices, whatever that may be for you and your lifestyle, and working with a healthcare team to stay on track.
One of the programs the health department may refer people to is Project CHAMPS.
According to SPCAA’s communications director Samantha Medoza, the program is able to help with anything deemed “HIV related,” including mental health care or substance use counseling.
Socioeconomic factors can make it even more difficult to deal with an HIV diagnosis, so Project CHAMPS works with clients to make treatment, medication and care more affordable.
The requirements to qualify for Project CHAMPS are Texas residency, an HIV diagnosis, and a household income below 500% Federal Poverty Level, which varies based on the number of people in the household.
For those who don’t qualify for CHAMPS, Mendoza says SPCAA has many other programs and local partnerships that might be able to assist.
In partnership with the Texas Department of State Health Services, SPCAA also has the HOPWA program, Housing Opportunities for Persons With AIDS. It is federally funded rent assistance for those living with HIV and their households. It offers services for both the housed and the homeless and does not require Ryan White eligibility.
Project CHAMPS serves 15 counties in the greater Lubbock area and has approximately 400 members locally. SPCAA also has a Project CHAMPS program in El Paso.
Mendoza said Project CHAMPS will service any Texas residents in the West Texas area.
Project CHAMPS does outreach at events like First Friday and LubbockPRIDE Fest, but Mendoza said SPCAA still struggles at times to give the program the visibility it deserves.
“That can be a little bit difficult when you want to go to schools for instance and give education or knowledge,” Mendoza explained. “Or public events, city funded events, stuff like that, it can be a little more difficult. But a lot of the times people are open when you open a conversation and have an open dialogue with them. People understand that the service is needed.”
For those who do not have HIV, Corbin’s advice is to be educated. She said more people are living with HIV than many realize and have the ability to lead fulfilled lives. By being more aware that HIV can affect anyone, people can also better avoid contracting it. It is essential to be aware of the ways HIV is transmitted and how it is not transmitted.
“You don’t get it casually,” she said. “You can’t get HIV through a doorknob or sharing a drink with someone. Those kinds of things are still misconceptions that I hear pretty often.”
For those living with HIV, Corbin and Mendoza want them to know that there is hope and they are not alone.
Resources (Spanish speaking options available upon request)
City of Lubbock Health Department
- (STD Appts): (806) 775-2933
- (STD Questions): (806) 775-2924 or (806) 775-2925
- 806 18th St, Lubbock, TX 79401
- HIV testing, education, and referrals
Planned Parenthood Association of Lubbock
South Plains Community Action Association, Inc. - Project CHAMPS
Texas Department of State Health Services - Public Health Region 1
- (806) 783-6400 or (806) 744-3577
- 62302 Iola Avenue
- HIV testing, education, consultation, and referrals
Parkridge Pregnancy Medical Clinic
- (806) 794-8555
- 5203 79th St A, Lubbock, TX 79424
- HIV testing
Covenant Medical Group Obstetrics and Gynecology - Blann, Hatton & Suit
- (806) 725-6963
- 2102 Oxford Ave, Lubbock, TX 79410
- HIV testing
TTU Student Wellness Center
- (806) 743-2848
- 1003 Flint Ave, Lubbock, TX 79409
- HIV testing