HIV Peer Testing Center Reopens, Undergoes Changes


Photo courtesy of HIV Peer Testers

HIV peer testers conduct free, confidential tests for students. The HIV Peer Testing Center reopened this semester after roughly a semester-long hiatus.

After being closed for more than a semester due to changes at the state level, Oberlin’s HIV Peer Testing Center has reopened sooner than expected and reinstated its free HIV tests. However, unlike last year, student peer testers can only administer testing twice a month, when a Lorain County Public Health tester is on call.

“There was a change in Ohio state laws regarding what services we have to perform in order to be an official testing site within the Ohio Department of Health network,” said College fourth-year and HIV Peer Testing Co-Coordinator Fiona Sherman.

These services include confirmatory blood tests to rule out false positive results. However, peer testers did not have permission from Student Health Services to offer confirmatory tests in the event of a positive result, despite several peer testers being trained in administering blood tests. At present, peer testers administer testing orally and are in conversation with Student Health about what could be possible in the future.

“In order for them to list us as an official testing site, we needed to be able to offer blood testing for both preliminary and confirmatory tests, which is something that we weren’t able to do under Student Health because they weren’t comfortable with us doing it,” Sherman said.

The ODH is currently in the implementation phase of the Rapid HIV Testing Protocol, according to Sherman. In addition to requiring testers to offer same-day confirmatory testing, the protocol also mandates that a regional Disease Intervention Specialist must be notified after a client receives two positive rapid test results.

“The DIS will work with the client to, ideally, get them medical appointments before they even leave the test site,” said Lorain County Public Health Community Health Nursing Supervisor Natalie Karn.

LCPH has transitioned their HIV test over the past year from an oral swabbing method to a finger pricking method, a change that has allowed them to stay in compliance with CDC and ODH regulations. Since peer testers only conduct tests via oral swab, LCPH serves an important role in helping the HIVPT program offer confirmatory tests.

Blood tests are more precise than oral swabs, as they test for both HIV-infected antibodies and antigens rather than just antibodies. If a peer tester-administered test returns a positive, an on-call nurse from LCPH will visit the College to conduct a confirmatory test.

However, there are some limitations to HIV testing, including the statistical possibility of false positives and inaccuracies based on timing.

“Whether it’s oral or blood, the HIV test will only show a positive for someone who contracted HIV three months prior,” Karn said.

Because LCPH only conducts confirmatory tests twice a month, only about 16 students are tested each month on a by-appointment-only basis through the Peer Testing Center. Still, despite the limited time slots available for testing, most students who request confidential testing are able to have their needs accommodated.

“We have multiple trained testers,” Sherman said. “So, if there’s a little bit of overlap, we’ll have our half an hour slots through the day. We’re usually able to fit everyone in.”

Sadie Munter, HIV peer testing co-coordinator, hopes to be able to offer testing more often in the future. If the peer testers were able to offer blood tests, they would no longer require assistance from LCPH.

“We’re still trying to figure out how we can move to a model where we can do testing more than two days a month,” Munter said.

According to Sherman, there is substantial student demand for continuous and more accessible peer-testing services.

“We’re pretty booked up every time that we do testing this semester,” they said.

While the future of the HIVPT will likely continue in a state of flux, peer testers remain confident in the importance of confidential peer-to-peer testing.

“I think that makes a lot of students feel more comfortable coming in to get tested,” Sherman said. “So it helps to de-stigmatize the idea of getting tested in the first place. And it also just makes it a more accessible space.”