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5 min

‘Rapid’ HIV test arrives

Clinic's three-hour process remains

TWO MINUTES, TWO HOURS. The City of Ottawa is using a new 60-second HIV test, but since Ottawa's Sexual Health Clinic is still swamped, it takes a lot longer than that before the nurse draws blood. Credit: (Samnang Touch illustration)

“Your test results came back negative,” the tiny blonde nurse said, closing the door behind her.

Sighing a breath of relief, I realized then that I had been a lot more nervous than I thought about getting my results.

Having sat patiently in the waiting room at the Clarence St. Sexual Health Centre for an hour and a half early Friday morning, reading and re-reading the clinic’s same dated issue of Chatelaine, I started to feel my stomach turn, and I didn’t think it was because of the obnoxious man talking on the phone beside me. Well, maybe a little. But I realized it was because I never ever get tested.

Having taken part in exchanges of below-the-waist bodily fluids since the age of 14, I’ve had my fair share of random sexual encounters over the years. A lot of them have been with friends, so I assumed they were clean.

Even when I recently got back in touch with (and fucked) a guy I fooled around with as a teen, my focus got diverted away from chlamydia, and more towards cumming instead.

So now, at 20 — and only because of a story I was writing for work — I was finally taking my first set of HIV and STD tests after having waited so long.

And the clinic was making me wait even longer. The centre’s drop-in hours begin at 9:30am on Fridays, so I arrived a little early to try and beat the rush. Apparently, everyone else tries to do the same thing. When I got in the door at about 10 minutes after nine, there were already 16 people in the waiting room.

“We regret to inform visitors to the Sexual Health Centre that due to high service demands, they may experience difficulty accessing our walk-in services on certain days. Some visitors may be asked to access services on an alternate day or to book an appointment,” a sign hanging on the wall of the clinic reads.

Getting a little annoyed at the fact that the loud young girl who showed up at clinic quite a bit after me and matter-of-factly told reception that she was here to inquire about birth control was called in way before I was, I spied another notice stuck to the wall that stated that numbers wouldn’t necessarily be called in order of arrival.

Perfect.

Having a lot of time to think while I waited, I tried to come up with a logical answer as to why I hadn’t been responsible enough to get tested before this. I think I was always too freaked out at the slight chance of testing positive, so I just didn’t get tested. It’s ridiculous, but I didn’t want to know. A lot of people worry about the social stigma that an HIV test (and its potential results) may bring. Other reasons people may choose to not get tested may have to do with the fact that they don’t think they are at risk, don’t know where to get tested or what the process is, or have qualms about the confidentiality of tests. I know that when I was younger, I definitely worried about the potential results of a test being leaked to potential boyfriends, or worse, my church-going parents.

Anonymous testing however — which is what I went in for — is testing where results are linked to the person being tested by a numeric code known only to the patient. Neither the physician ordering the test nor anyone else knows the identity of the person being tested.

Public health officials hope that, by providing anonymous HIV testing, a greater number of individuals will feel comfortable getting tested. While a lot of people may feel more comfortable with anonymous testing than nominal (as in, using your name) testing, the process is still not as hassle-free as one may like, and the wait times are discouraging.

Since the point of an anonymous test is to protect your identity, clinic staff shouldn’t ask you your name. Instead, according to City of Ottawa documents, the lab requisition is completed with the following essential information once you are called into the office: gender, ethnicity, country of birth, sexual orientation, year of birth, symptoms (if any), reason for testing, risks.

That’s a lot of information, information that they use to track infection rates.

When I first got to the clinic, I told the receptionist that I was here for an anonymous HIV test. Yawning, she handed me a form, and told me to fill it out and return it to her. At the very top of the sheet is a box to check indicating that you want the HIV test to be anonymous. Just below that is a page full of lines asking things such as your name, address, phone number, and reason for coming to the clinic. Wait a second — this doesn’t seem so anonymous any more.

Be careful when filling out that initial form — there aren’t separate forms for anonymous HIV testing, so you will be given the same piece of paper to fill out as people going in for confidential HIV testing, STI and pregnancy tests. Only check that one box at the top if you want an anonymous test, and whatever contact information you are comfortable giving. The clinic staff won’t clear this up for you unless you ask, and when you go in for testing already anxious about it, you may fill out the entire form without really thinking about it until afterwards.

Remember, if they do ask you outright to give your name, don’t. And if you feel too shy to speak up and say no, make one up. The clinic never asks to see a health card or piece of ID, so don’t be coerced into giving them your real name if you don’t want to.

Once I actually got into the office, the questions became a little intrusive as the nurse tried to determine my ‘risk factor’. Not only was I asked to recount every sexual partner I’ve had in my lifetime, exactly what kinds of sexual acts I have participated in, and what kinds of protection I have used and how often I use it, but she even asked me to recall the first time I’d even been fingered.

“Umm, by myself, or someone else?” I asked as a nervous joke. She looked at me like I was an idiot.

Depending on your sexual history and risk factors involved in your personal situation, the questions can really gum up the process, meaning that a short visit can easily turn into an all-morning excursion.

Getting the test takes just as long as it ever did, but getting the results is now substantially quicker, thanks to the rollout of the 60-second rapid test. Now, by pricking your finger and drawing the blood from there, the nurse can administer the test and give you results in under two minutes.

A rapid test is more likely to give you indeterminate results than the traditional test, but for those who test negative, it means that there’s no wait for the results. If you do test positive however, they will then draw blood from your arm to test again, and the standard 3-week wait will apply for that.

So while the rapid HIV tests are a great new tool, and a motivator to get people out to get tested, I still spent an hour and a half in the waiting room, and another half-hour in the office answering questions before actually taking the 60-second test. And those kinds of wait times are on a good day.

Also, if you do decide to get STI testing on the same day as your anonymous HIV test, to get it all over with at once, be prepared for an even longer wait time. Anonymous STI tests are not guaranteed in the Provincial Health Act, so to keep things anonymous, you will have to go in for one test, and then back out to reception to fill out a form all over again.

So you might want to bring along a better magazine than Chatelaine. For your sanity.