Too Tough to Get an HIV Test in San Francisco

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As we approach the 26th anniversary of the first AIDS diagnosis, I’m shocked that in San Francisco, of all cities, it is still difficult to obtain a free HIV test.

For years, I’ve donated blood through Blood Centers of the Pacific. But after the last time, I received a letter informing me that there was an extremely slight chance I might be infected with HIV. The letter asked me never to give blood again and recommended that I might want to follow up with my physician.

Considering this is San Francisco—a city which has witnessed thousands of deaths due to AIDS—I figured it would be the easiest thing in the world to obtain an HIV test—either through my physician or through a free clinic. Was I wrong.

I told my gynecologist about the Blood Center’s letter during my next visit. She recommended that I call another doctor, gave me his name and promptly excused herself. Huh? Why wouldn’t she just send me to the nearest lab for a test?

The only explanation seems to be in this story she told me that day: There was another patient of hers who, sadly, miscarried. In the course of testing after the miscarriage, two tests for HIV showed positive. My doctor told her patient, whose husband was outraged. Subsequent tests proved negative. She said she never saw the patient again.

I called the doctor my gynecologist recommended, only to discover that he is an infectious disease specialist. What? Wasn’t she jumping the gun? She just may have lost another patient.

The infectious disease doctor recommended that I seek a free HIV test at City Clinic, part of the city’s Department of Public Health at 356-7th St. The next day, I showed up at City Clinic, only to be told that I wasn’t qualified to obtain an HIV test at the facility. The doctors there only test patients at high risk, which they told me they categorize as people diagnosed with gonorrhea and syphilis; gay, bisexual and transgender men; and injection-drug users. OK fine—I am a white straight single woman.

The doctors at City Clinic gave me a list of other clinics in the city where I could obtain a free HIV test. The day after, I showed up at another facility whose hours were posted as open, but not a soul was there. I finally flagged down someone who told me that they weren’t offering HIV tests that day.

Why not? The two people who conduct the tests had called in sick.

At this point, I was emotionally drained and physically worn out from running all over the city on public transportation, yet failing to obtain a free HIV test. I called my gynecologist’s office and spoke with her nurse. “I want an HIV test and I want it today,” I said. She said I would have to travel across town to St. Francis Memorial Hospital. At that point, I didn’t care if I had to travel to Oregon—just give me the test.

I arrived at St. Francis hospital, my blood was collected and I was on my way within thirty minutes. Some $75 and five days later, I got my results—Negative.

As relieved as I am to get such results, I think it is a crying shame that it was such a challenge for me to get an HIV test in this city. From my gynecologist to the infectious disease specialist to City Clinic to another free clinic, I was rejected.

For all we do to help people in the Third World receive HIV tests, we could put some effort into doing a better job at home. Let’s make that our goal for the next 25 years.


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