A North Charleston HIV testing group recently began driving a van filled with blood tests, condoms and literature to a homeless shelter, a gay bar and local churches.

Despite the difference in these settings, the recently rebranded Palmetto Community Care is targeting each of the populations at these locations by offering HIV and hepatitis C tests outside the clinic's walls.

"It's us being able to reach the demographic who needs us the most," said Adam Weaver, the group's prevention manager. 

The white van, funded with a $50,000 grant from the Elton John AIDS Foundation, is equipped with a small table and stools inside. One prick of the finger is enough for both an HIV and hepatitis C test. And results are available in a few minutes.

Staff will take the van to Dudley's on Ann late at night as a line builds outside the bar and to One80 Place, where homeless men and women can walk up and get a confidential test.

These tests can cost hundreds of dollars, with or without insurance, Weaver said. But additional grant funding allows Palmetto Community Care to administer them for free.  

The van's launch comes after a major rebranding for the group. For years, it was known as Lowcountry AIDS Services. Earlier this year, the clinic reported an unusually high number of positive HIV tests.

There were seven positive tests in January, compared to 21 positive tests during all of 2017.

The staff view the high number of positive tests as a sign they're reaching the people they need to.

Across the state, the South Carolina health department did not report an irregular number of positive HIV tests in January.

Still, infections continue to increase and communicating the seriousness of the disease is only getting harder.

The number of people living with an HIV infection has increased each year since 2007. But treatments have improved, and the infection is no longer considered a death sentence. 

Nearly 19,000 South Carolina residents had an HIV infection at the end of 2016, according to the Department of Health and Environmental Control. 

The majority of those people were men who contracted the infection through sex with other men. A disproportionate share of people living with HIV are black: 71 percent.

Daniel Brinker, the owner of Dudley's, said HIV testing is still terrifying. The bar's partnership with the HIV testing clinic goes back years, he said. Before, the clinic's staff would set up a table outside the bar. The van now parks in a nearby alley, which Brinker said will be more approachable and confidential.

Brinker said he has noticed even his own staff using the testing.  

"The testing is coming to them, rather than them having to take the time out of their day," he said. 

The homeless shelter already offers robust medical services, said Amy Wilson, One80 Place's vice president. A health screening upon entry is routine. 

Wednesday was the first time the shelter hosted the HIV testing van on site. She said more than anything, the benefit is giving visitors an option to be tested confidentially. 

"People can access it as they need or as they want," Wilson said. 

Palmetto Community Care also went to a recent health fair at a church.

Bradley Childs, the group's executive director, said he has long hoped to forge relationships with local AME churches. But there is still a stigma attached to HIV. Part of the reason for the group's recent renaming was a hope that the new name would make the clinic more approachable.

It's also a reflection of changing times. While HIV infections continue to increase, AIDS-related fatalities are dropping.

Still, Childs said two of the group's clients died last week.

Reach Mary Katherine Wildeman at 843-937-5594. Follow her on Twitter @mkwildeman.

We're improving out commenting experience.

We’ve temporarily removed comments from articles while we work on a new and better commenting experience. In the meantime, subscribers are encouraged to join the conversation at our Post and Courier Subscribers group on Facebook.