The Tampa Bay metropolitan area had the 15th highest rate of HIV diagnoses in the country for 2015, the Centers for Disease Control reported last December.
Over the years, thousands of local citizens infected with the virus have come for treatment at the four Metro Wellness centers in the Tampa Bay area. But, for more than two decades, the flagship building has been located on the western edge of Kenwood in St. Petersburg.
That center is undergoing a $5.2 million expansion, which will ultimately double its current footprint.
On Tuesday, St. Petersburg U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist visited the facility, to get a first-hand look at the progress and learn more about programs that Metro Wellness offers the community.
In an hourlong tour of the facility, Crist personally shook hands, took selfies and engaged in small talk with dozens of Metro Wellness staffers. He also took a journey into the expanded part of the building (but curiously refused to don a hard hat, as was required for reporters and Metro Wellness staffers).
Priya Rajkumar, the COO and Chief Program Officer with Metro Wellness, said that the 340B Prescription Drug Program has allowed the organization to expand their services with CAN, the Community AIDS Network, with which the nonprofit shares office space.
And that, in turn, has allowed expansion of the building, where they’ve been able to raise more than a million dollars in the past year.
“On our own, we wouldn’t be able to do this,” she said.
Lorraine Langlois is CEO of Metro Wellness, and has been with the organization for close to 25 years. When Crist was informed that she was recovering at home from recent knee surgery, he asked Keene for her number and chatted with her for a few minutes, commiserating with her about the “ill-conceived” creation of the American Health Care Act, the GOP House’s bill to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act.
The AHCA currently enjoys the support of only 8 percent of American who think the Senate should pass it as is, according to a survey released Wednesday by the Kaiser Family Foundation.
Metro Wellness has expanded over the years, and now has over 140 employees.
“It started as a mechanism to care for those who were dying of HIV/AIDS and from that caring core a nonprofit was formed to better provide services,” said James Keane, the interim director of Metro Wellness’ LGBT Community Center Services. “It was about lengthening someone’s life and treating the disease, as opposed to helping folks with end-of-life issues, and that growth went hand in hand with caring with those infected with HIV.”
Among the services that Metro Wellness provides is an HIV prevention program, where they go into Pinellas County school to educate black and Hispanic youths between the ages of 13 and 19. Rajkumar said the greatest level of infections in the county are black and Latino men under 30. However, they haven’t been able to enter all the schools in the county.
“There’s a tremendous amount of stigma that’s still associated,” she said of AIDS and HIV. “In each school, there can be some politics, so each school is a little different in what they can allow us to speak about.”
“There’s politics?” Crist asked sincerely. “What about the First Amendment? It would help reduce the level of new infections.”
Metro Wellness director of compliance Kirsty Gutierrez, said that the center has been able to use a grant approved last fall by the state to help young adults between the ages of 18 and 26 who have just been released from Pinellas County jails, helping them access health insurance, housing, job training and HIV awareness and education.
Currently, there are eight intake and treatment rooms for HIV and primacy care, and the expansion and renovation will double that space.
Construction is expected to be completed by July 2018.