After the city closed an STD clinic in April, at the height of a syphilis outbreak in Chelsea, many advocacy groups and elected officials were alarmed that the Dept. of Health and Mental Hygiene hadn’t provided more advance notice of their plan. But those same groups and elected officials have been working with the agency in the interim, and this week unveiled a plan to combat the outbreak and mitigate the clinic’s closure in the neighborhood.
Syphilis rates in Chelsea are six times that of rest of the city, and the Chelsea STD clinic historically has been visited more than any of the other five health department clinics in the city. Councilmember Corey
Johnson, who is chair of the city council’s committee on health and spearheaded efforts on the official side, said the message he received from activist groups, and one that he agreed with, was that the clinic’s closure on 9th Avenue and 28th Street, was “disastrous.”
The solution initially put forward by the health department - to transfer services to the Riverside Health Clinic on West 100th Street - was inadequate in that it forced Chelsea residents to go more than 70 blocks north for testing and treatment, and away from a clinic that was known for being LGBTQ-friendly, said Johnson.
Johnson said the city’s plan to renovate the Chelsea STD clinic goes back to 2007. Last year, when he succeeded city council speaker Christine Quinn, Johnson said he told the health department the clinic must remain open.
An agreement was reached whereby the clinic would remain partially open during the renovation, which would be completed in stages. However, said Johnson, the extent of the building’s asbestos problem wasn’t known until recently after clinic workers filed a grievance with their union over working conditions.
In April of this year, after the health department determined the clinic could not remain open during the renovation, news broke that the clinic would close for two to three years. With these circumstances as the backdrop, said Johnson, the community felt blindsided when the health department made its announcement.
“I think part of it had to with their plan to keep part of the clinic open,” said Johnson of the health department’s initially faulty response. Still, he said, the agency could have handled things differently. “At that point, when they made that decision, they should have come up with a full community engagement and outreach process, and that didn’t happen. Which is why we’re doing that now.”
Johnson said there are still some details to be worked out, but in broad terms, the plan that will soon be put in place involves changing the signage at the closed Chelsea clinic to be more prominent and informative regarding where alternative treatment options are located; parking a health department-staffed mobile van unit – which will be capable of rapid HIV and syphilis testing - outside of the closed clinic to direct people to other sites; and the launching of three sexual behavior health sites at the Community Healthcare Network Catherine M. Abate Health Center, the Callen-Lorde Community Health Center and Mt. Sinai Hospital’s Chelsea campus, which will each be staffed by a nurse practitioner provided by the health department.
“People, if they don’t want to get treatment in these mobile units, would be referred by the navigators and others where they could get free and uncompensated care that was provided at the Chelsea clinic,” said Johnson.
Lastly, said Johnson, the health department is putting together a comprehensive communication plan to educate the community on alternatives to the Chelsea STD clinic. The information campaign will involve social media, flyers, online and print advertisements, and a texting service.
Johnson said there’s currently a full rotation of community mobile vans outside of the closed clinic, which will continue on after the health department’s van is put in place, through the end of this summer. At that point, said Johnson, a Community Health Network mobile bus will be parked outside the clinic and will offer everything the Chelsea clinic offered. The network’s bus will work on a contract basis with the health department, and will be put in place in late-August or early-September.
“I think this is a step in the right direction,” said Johnson. “I wish this plan had been put in place before the clinic closed, but there are still details that need to be worked out.”
State Senator Brad Hoylman praised Johnson for his response in bringing the community groups together to come up with a solution.
“Closing an STD clinic in the middle of a syphilis outbreak is a bit like shutting off a fire house in the middle of a fire,” said Hoylman. “But we’re moving forward and I think that’s the important thing.”
Initially, said Johnson, health department officials were confident in their plan to transfer services to Riverside Health Center. However, evidence and data from Act Up New York and the Treatment Action Group eventually changed their minds, he said.
“I think it moved them to come up with a different plan. The advocates had a lot of info around acute HIV infection, and the syphilis numbers,” said Johnson. “The goal all along was that nobody fall through the cracks. And the idea was if the clinic was closed, people would fall through the cracks.”
A health department spokesperson said the agency “coordinated with community-based organizations to provide mobile HIV and STD services near the Chelsea site five days a week while the site is transformed into a world-class facility, and the department is additionally evaluating measures to increase service capacity in the neighborhood.”
The spokesperson also said the agency is augmenting the availability of STD services by increasing testing capacity at the Gay Men’s Health Crisis on 33rd Street and 10th Avenue.