Activists in Chelsea have declared their own health emergency, an outcome, they say, of the inadequacy of city-sanctioned efforts to ease the fallout from the March closure of an STD clinic that served many in the neighborhood’s LGBT community.
The AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power and the Treatment Action Group, two prominent AIDS and health advocacy groups, held an emergency town hall meeting on Sept. 2 to draw attention to what they say is a steep drop-off in testing and treatment for AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases. According to the coalition, visits to STD clinics are down 18 percent citywide since a planned two- to three-year closure of the Chelsea clinic at Ninth Avenue and 28th Street.
The Department of Health and Mental Hygiene said the clinic would be closed for renovations. In the meantime they’re directing patients 70 blocks north to the Riverside Health Clinic on West 100th Street. Other mitigation efforts include parking a mobile rapid testing van for syphilis and HIV outside the closed clinic and the introduction of three sexual behavior health sites at nearby health centers.
But activists said the city failed to give any advance warning and their temporary mitigation efforts are unequal to the task.
“We found out essentially that there had been no publicizing of the closing of the clinic,” said Jeremiah Johnson, a research and policy coordinator with TAG. “I think after [we] protested, they did try to put together some Band-Aid responses, basically putting a couple vans on the street next to the clinic, but of course a couple vans are not a replacement for the clinic. It’s not very dignified and it’s not very private feeling, and it cannot serve the same capacity as the Chelsea STD clinic.”
Plans to close the clinic go back to 2007. Originally a portion of the clinic was to remain open, but officials said they didn’t realize the extent of the building’s asbestos problem. After workers filed a grievance with their union over conditions the city decided to fully close it during the renovation work. Activists are now calling for a temporary clinic facility built on site.
“We’re looking for some sort of more fixed site location, something more approximating a clinic,” said Johnson.
A report by the coalition found that between 2010 and 2014, annual cases of gonorrhea diagnosed in men citywide increased by 40 percent, and the number of new cases of Chlamydia diagnosed in men increased by 15 percent. The report also said cases of primary and secondary syphilis diagnosed in men increased by 33 percent.
Those numbers, coupled with the claim that visits to clinics have decreased drastically since the Chelsea clinic’s closure, have the coalition pressing the city and Mayor Bill de Blasio to do more to prevent and treat the spread of STDs. But city officials have since cast doubt on the coalition’s findings.
“Those numbers are misleading,” said a spokesperson for the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. “Mayor de Blasio has added $1.1 million a year for STD clinics to enhance services for men who have sex with men. There was also nearly $4 million in the budget, thanks to the city council, to end the epidemic.”
The agency, citing its own study, found that between 2007 and 2012 the estimated proportion of city residents being tested for HIV had increased 56 percent to nearly 63 percent.
“The Chelsea clinic is only one component of the city’s extensive services for people at risk for STDs and HIV,” said a department spokesperson, adding that in 2014, about 95 percent of all STD diagnoses in New York City were made at a clinic other than the Chelsea clinic and that more than 80 percent of Chelsea residents with an STD were diagnosed at another clinic.
“The Chelsea clinic is important, but a temporary closure to support renovation, combined with extensive auxiliary services during the renovation, will not hinder the city’s ability to end the AIDS epidemic.”
The agency added that gonorrhea and syphilis rates have been rising since 2000 in every major city in the United States, Canada and Western Europe, and that increases have occurred in places with universal healthcare systems and extensive STD services, as well as places with neither of those.
An agency spokesperson also said the vast majority of people with STDs in New York City are diagnosed outside of Health Department’s clinics, “which was true before there was any reduction in services.”
Despite that rebuttal, the coalition’s findings are gaining traction in some quarters of city government. Public Advocate Letitia James added her voice to the call for funding for a new center in Chelsea at the emergency town hall on Sept. 2.
“These rates should be going down, not up,” said James. “We need the mayor and the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene to make public health in Chelsea a priority. This is a community that grapples with some of the highest rates of HIV and AIDS in the nation.”
Johnson said the Chelsea clinic was also indispensable in providing services for traditionally marginalized populations like undocumented immigrants and transgender and transexual men and women. The clinic was attractive, he said, because testing and treatment was free and required no identification.
“This is an incredibly important clinic,” said Johnson. “And we heard anecdotally about a number of people from the Bronx and Brooklyn coming to this specific clinic, presumably because people don’t want to receive services in their neighborhood because of the stigmatizing nature of these diseases.”