Bringing caregivers and the community together is one of the most important things we can do in the fight to end HIV, which is why organizations like CrescentCare have made it their mission to provide quality care and education for those living in the New Orleans area.
When it first opened in the early years of the HIV epidemic, before life-saving medications became widely available to those living with HIV, CrescentCare (known as NO/AIDS Task Force then) acted mainly as a hospice care facility. Now it's a federally qualified health center offering primary care and other services like pediatric, obstetric, gynecologic, and mental health as well as an STI clinic and growing community programs.
Serving the LGBTQ+ community and those living with HIV is at the core of CrescentCare's DNA, says Jason Halperin, an infectious disease specialist at CrescentCare.
"What we learned is the services that the Ryan White program offers is really a model for how we should provide care to everyone," says Halperin. "We see ourselves as both an LGBTQ+ center of excellence and a sexual wellness center. That's really the identity that is so important to us and is what makes us unique in the city of New Orleans."
One key ingredient that makes CrescentCare so special is affirmation. Having doctors and nurses who understand the nuances of being LGBTQ+ is vital.
"I'm really proud of the gender-affirming care that we have access to here. Those of trans experience, previously, especially those who have Medicaid, had no other access to services," says Halperin. "It was a real goal for us as an organization to make sure that our services are available to all. We have people coming in from Mississippi, from Alabama and rural parts of Louisiana, because they can't access services. That's really difficult to hear but I'm happy that we are here to be there for them."
A major part of CrescentCare's success also has to do with their efforts to end HIV stigma through education. Before the pandemic, they traveled to bars, restaurants, and festivals in the New Orleans area, offering free testing and educating people about Undetectable equals Untransmittable (U=U), the global consensus that if you're living with the virus and are undetectable, it is impossible to transmit HIV to others.
In March, when the pandemic began to directly impact our lives, CrescentCare was one of the first centers in New Orleans to provide a safe space for LGBTQ+ folks to get tested.
"The city has had some sites since the beginning of April, but we were a bit ahead of them," says Halperin. "Once the city testing sites opened, we met with our board and there were a lot of questions, [making us think] we probably should stop, the city's doing testing. And we heard over and over again, especially from the trans community, especially from the Spanish speaking community, 'We don't feel safe going to the city testing sites. We just don't feel safe.'"
Since then, providing a safe space for marginalized communities to get tested during the pandemic has been at the core of CrescentCare's model this year. This will serve as a nice transition when the center begins to offer COVID vaccinations.
"We already are discussing being one of the key vaccination sites with the city," he explains.
Moving forward into 2021, Halperin acknowledges that while there's more work to be done overall in health care, community organizing is something we must always foster. Helping people find their tribe is a huge pillar of their work, and it will undoubtedly take more shape as the LGBTQ+ community starts to rebuild.
"No one is alone. We are in this together," he says. "Even if you feel alone, you are not. No matter where you are, you can reach out to CrescentCare and we can help navigate you into services that might be closer to you. Here in New Orleans, there's a lot of amazing efforts by people living with HIV, by young communities, both of color and of trans experience, that are developing spaces to come together and recognize they're not alone and to be educated on the services that do exist -- and you have a human right to access."