New London's Alliance for Living will host free HIV testing every Friday starting Dec. 1

New London — The nonprofit Alliance for Living will offer free weekly HIV testing at its Broad Street office starting Friday, part of a commemoration of World AIDS Day and an effort to help those at risk know whether they have been infected with HIV and what to do with that information.

It's the latest initiative for Alliance for Living, which provides services to people affected by HIV and AIDS from its Broad Street office. An estimate of more than 500 people were living with HIV in New London County in 2015, the latest year for which data from the state Department of Health is available.

The organization works to prevent and treat HIV infection and drug overdoses, planning events like a training session to teach people to administer the opioid overdose-reversal drug naloxone last summer and opening a free syringe exchange program that provides clean needles to people who inject drugs.

The Department of Public Health, which has funded HIV testing in the state since 1986, is paying for staff at Alliance for Living to conduct tests for HIV to anyone who wants one for the next three years.

Alliance for Living staff will conduct free, 20-minute HIV testing from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Friday during an event at its 154 Broad St. office to commemorate World AIDS Day. The event also will include lunch and a keynote speaker.

And every Friday, the agency will offer the tests there for free, no appointment needed.

The agency also soon will begin weekly testing sessions at other locations around New London County, including places like New London's Homeless Hospitality Center and the Opportunities Industrialization Center, known as OIC, an employment assistance agency on Truman Street.

Despite advances in medicine and public understanding of HIV, some still feel uncomfortable discussing the virus or getting tested, said Erick Carrión, a spokesman for the Alliance for Living.

"With every person, it's different," he said. "There's a lot of people that stigmatize it and they don't even know what HIV stands for."

A report released by the state Department of Public Health last year showed that by 2014 about 10,727 people were living with HIV in Connecticut, and that infection rates are disproportionately high among groups such as black and Hispanic people.

Of the new cases diagnosed between 2010 and 2014, 31 percent met the criteria of AIDS at diagnosis, "meaning they have likely been infected for many years," according to the report.

People who are HIV-positive may not know they have been infected with the virus until they are hospitalized with AIDS, the most severe phase of HIV infection, in which the person's damaged immune system leaves the body susceptible to serious infections.

"When someone doesn't know their status, they can still transmit it," Carrión said.

Once people know they are HIV-positive, he said, the Alliance's staff will offer its services and information about how medicine can prevent HIV from progressing to AIDS and reduce the risk of transmitting HIV to other people.

Alliance for Living provides case management, treatment, therapy, meals and transportation to its nearly 200 HIV-positive clients.

By making the tests free and accessible to New London County residents, Carrión said the Alliance hopes to be a resource for anyone who wants to get tested.

"A lot of people don't have the time and the (resources) you need to make an appointment," Carrión said. But "getting tested ... is the only way to know if you're positive or negative."

"People can come as many times as they want," he added. "We would encourage that."

m.shanahan@theday.com

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