The Multnomah County Board of Commissioners proclaimed February 7, 2018, as National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day at Thursday's board meeting.
The proclamation, sponsored by Commissioner Loretta Smith, marks the fourth year Multnomah County has recognized National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day. Observance of the day is part of a nationwide effort to mobilize Black communities to get educated about HIV, get tested for the virus, and get treated.
“I come to you guys today as a client,” Thomas Hooks said during Thursday’s board meeting. “I was diagnosed in 2009 with HIV.”
“I knew that I had mental health issues that I needed to take care of and address,” Hooks said. “Instead I ran and hid on the streets of Portland and I began to use drugs. I didn’t feel like there were a lot of services available to me.”
Then he began working with Maurice Evans, a Multnomah County Health Clinic patient navigator and Health Department nurse practitioner. But Hooks said he wasn’t ready to stop using drugs, and so the antiviral regimen he was prescribed didn’t work.
“They didn’t give up on me, whether they had the funding or not, they didn’t give up on me,” said Hooks. “They made home visits and checked in on me and did everything they could do to get me to re-engage in my own health.”
Hooks was eventually connected to housing, and once stably housed, he was able to get sober, too.
“My sobriety date is 7/5/2014,” said Hooks. “I’ve got over 3 1/2 years of sobriety. I was able to re-engage with the Multnomah County Health Department to get my viral level to be undetectable. And now I can actually go around and talk to people.”
“I can meet with them, share my story with them and let them know this isn’t a death sentence any longer, that it’s OK and there are services available,” Hooks said.
Evans, sitting with Hooks, said there was even more to the story of Hooks’ path to housing and better health.
“He didn’t share that he’s doing all of this as he fights cancer and is a single parent,” Evans said.
“You have so much courage to come and tell us about your story,” Commissioner Smith told Hooks. “I do believe you will have a huge impact on young people. Your story will allow you to touch so many lives.”
African Americans are the racial/ethnic group most affected by HIV in the United States, presenters told the board.
African Americans have the highest rate of new HIV diagnoses. In 2015, African Americans accounted for 45 percent of HIV diagnoses nationally, though they make up 12 percent of the population.
In Oregon, Black men are three times more likely than White men to have HIV. Black women are 12 times more likely than White women.
“We still boast of very good numbers of viral suppression,” said Evans. “Eighty-seven percent virus suppression, so the majority of the clients that we serve are thriving. But because we are a trauma-informed agency, we took a deeper dive at those numbers."
“What we found are the ones that are not thriving are youth and Black men that have sex with men and Black transgender people."
In response the County continues to partner with Cascade AIDS Project, the Oregon Health Authority HIV Prevention Program, Planned Parenthood of the Columbia Willamette, the Portland Chapter of the LINKS Inc. and the Albina Ministerial Alliance to address the disparity.
The County has already launched a youth enhancement program for those 18 to 24 years old who are newly diagnosed. Housing advocates and peer coordinators are amplifying staff.
“We also provide medication assistance recovery within clinics,” Evans said. “We’re doing really great work, but what we found is that 13 percent is the one, and it is those people from marginalized communities.”
“We will not see an end to this disease until we actually take a look at those people on that bottom rung,” Evan said. “When we do put those extra dollars there, and the extra time.”
Commissioner Sharon Meieran, who also works as an emergency room physician, echoed those sentiments.
“I just know we have to do everything in our power to address those disparities that you experience in our healthcare system and it is going to be a difficult and long road,” Meieran said. “But I am in it as a provider. And will do everything in my power to help you on the journey.”