ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Florida now leads the nation in new HIV cases, according to a new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Now, in the Tampa Bay area, non-profits are taking action to get people tested.
After nearly four decades, Michael Tollar, who is now in his seventies, still calls his partner the love of his life. He first saw him in a bar in the mid-1980s. It was the beginning of the HIV and AIDS epidemic.
"I went up to him and asked him to dance and that was it," Tollar said.
But then, their love story was cut short. Both Tollar and his partner received a devastating HIV diagnosis. He said back in the mid-1980s, that was most often an impending death sentence.
"There were no meds," Tollar said. "People shunned you."
His partner died just 12 months later. Tollar, grieving, moved to St. Petersburg.
Today, he is especially concerned about the growing numbers of HIV cases across the Tampa Bay area.
"The young people you know, they're carefree," Tollar said.
EPIC, a non-profit with Empath Health, provides services to people impacted by HIV and AIDS throughout Tampa Bay.
"HIV has been something that's been controllable for so long that that's why we're seeing such a huge uptick in cases," said Joy Winheim, who serves as executive director with Empath Partners in Care (EPIC).
Now EPIC, along with the Florida Department of Health, is behind a huge push to get people tested for HIV in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties. Both are also working to connect to resources.
"It is the prick of your finger," Winheim said. "It is a blood drop. You get your results within a couple of minutes."
Winheim said getting tested and knowing if you have it is key. But also they are focusing on prevention by reducing risky behaviors such as having unprotected sex and sharing needles.
"If you're HIV positive, it affects every aspect of your life," Winheim said.
While medications help manage HIV and AIDS, some have terrible side effects, Tollar can personally attest.
He's now asking everyone to do what they can to prevent the spread of HIV.
"We know how you can get it and we know how you can prevent it," he said. "So, you need to do it."