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Syphilis Rate Rising Significantly in Co …

Bruce Weiss, Director of Community Health
Desert AIDS Project (D.A.P.)
Tel:  760-323-2118 x455

Syphilis Rate Rising Significantly in Coachella Valley as STDs Reach All-Time High in U.S.

Desert AIDS Project urges all sexually-active individuals to protect themselves, test routinely, and seek needed treatment. Gay and bisexual men at especially high risk and should test every 3 months.

PALM SPRINGS, CA, (October 20, 2016) –  Newly-released data from the Riverside University Health System (RUHS) shows that the rate of syphilis in the Coachella Valley is rising significantly. The troubling trend mirrors a just-released report from Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) which shows the number of sexually transmitted disease (STD) cases has hit an all-time high nationally.

Desert AIDS Project and its sexual health clinic, The DOCK, are urging all sexually-active individuals to get tested regularly for STDs, get treatment if needed, and to use condoms to prevent the spread of infections such as syphilis, gonorrhea and chlamydia – particularly if having sex with multiple partners.

Syphilis rates in the Coachella Valley – as high as 192.3 per 100,000 in one zip code – are astronomically and alarmingly higher than the national rate just announced by the CDC as an unprecedented high in the United States:  7.5 per 100,000. The rise of the syphilis rate among local men is of particular local concern. According to the RUHS Public Health report Syphilis Incidence in Coachella Valley, 2015:

  • Syphilis rates more than doubled from 2013 to 2015, from 14.7 to 30.9.per 100,000.
  • Nearly 98% of all cases are among men.
  • The most impacted age group is 40 to 64.
  • In 2013 there were no cases in individuals 65+ old, however, in 2015 there were 6 cases in this age group – potentially signaling a new trend.
  • In 2015, Palm Springs and North Palm Springs continued to have the highest rates by a substantial margin.   Per 100,000 individuals, zip code 92258 had 192.3 reported cases, followed by 92264 with 167.1 cases and 92262 with 165 cases.  These three zip codes also saw large syphilis rate increases from 2013 to 2015.
  • Many Coachella Valley cities saw significant syphilis rate increases between 2013 and 2015.  Exceptions were a drop in cases and rates for Rancho Mirage, and almost all zip codes in Palm Desert, Thousand Palms, Indian Wells and La Quinta.
  • The largest number of cases and increase in rate between 2013 and 2015 were seen among individuals who identified as white, followed by those identifying as Latino/Hispanic.

Based on these findings, gay and bisexual men between 40 to 64 years old who live in Palm Springs or North Palm Springs are at particularly high risk for syphilis and other sexually transmitted infections.

According to Dr. David Morris, Chief Medical Officer for Desert AIDS Project, “The data and trends are troubling.  Syphilis sores increase the risk of spreading HIV. We also know that HIV can speed the progression of syphilis – a disease which can cause permanent physical damage.”

Fortunately, individuals can take effective steps to protect themselves from STDs and their harmful effects.  Stated Bruce Weiss, D.A.P.’s Director of Community Health: “The combination of condom use and STD testing is crucial to protecting yourself and to ending the spread of syphilis in our community.”

“Many people will have no symptoms and may not know they’re infected;” he continued.   “Syphilis symptoms can often look like other illnesses.  That’s why regular testing – every three months if you’re sexually active – is so important.”

For individuals taking pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) medication, “Remember that PrEP does not protect you from STDs, including syphilis.  Routine use of condoms is effective,” Weiss added.

According to the annual Sexually Transmitted Disease Surveillance Report just issued by the CDC on October 19, the reported number of STD cases has reached an unprecedented high in the United States. Chlamydia, gonorrhea and syphilis are the three most commonly reported conditions.

“We have reached a decisive moment for the nation,” said Dr. Jonathan Mermin, director of CDC’s National Center for HIV/AIDS, Viral Hepatitis, STD, and TB Prevention. “STD rates are rising, and many of the country’s systems for preventing STDs have eroded. We must mobilize, rebuild and expand services – or the human and economic burden will continue to grow.”

The CDC report stresses that an effective response to the STD epidemic requires engagement from many players.  Specifically, they advise:

  • Providers: make STD screening a standard part of medical care, especially in pregnant women. Integrate STD prevention and treatment into prenatal care and other routine visits.
  • Public: talk openly about STDs, get tested regularly, and reduce risk by using condoms or practicing mutual monogamy if sexually active.
  • Parents and providers: offer young people safe, effective ways to access needed information and services.
  • State and local health departments: continue to direct resources to people hardest hit by the STD epidemic and work with community partners to maximize their impact.

For a link to the RUHS Public Health report Syphilis Incidence in Coachella Valley, 2015, visit The DOCK website   

For more information from CDC’s National Center for HIV/AIDS, Viral Hepatitis, STD, and TB Prevention, visit

About Desert AIDS Project

Desert AIDS Project (D.A.P.) is a Federally Qualified Health Center in Palm Springs, CA offering a combination of medical, dental, counseling, social services, support groups, alternative therapies, in-house pharmacy and lab, and other health and wellness services.  D.A.P.’s Get Tested Coachella Valley campaign, the nation’s first region-wide HIV testing and access to care initiative, was recognized by the White House for helping to bring about an AIDS-free future.  D.A.P. is rated a “Top 20 HIV Charity” by Visit,, and to learn more.

About The DOCK

The DOCK sexual health clinic at Desert AIDS Project provides comprehensive sexual health services, information and support. The clinic’s quick, caring, and confidential services for individuals of all gender identities include: STD testing & treatment, Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis (PrEP) and Post-Exposure Prophylaxis (PEP), and free HIV and HEP-C testing.  For more information, please visit

Meet the Provider: Dr. David Hersh – L …

Dr. David Hersh, M.D., Chief Clinical Officer, joined Desert AIDS Project in early 2013 as a staff Psychiatrist and accepted the position of Chief Clinical Officer in January 2016 after serving as Director of Clinical Services for the prior two years.  He continues to manage a patient caseload in addition to his administrative duties.

As Chief Clinical Officer, Dr. Hersh oversees the development, delivery, and integration of all medical, behavioral health, home health, social, and dental services.  He also supervises Informatics & Compliance to include medical records and information technology. His primary duties consist of the development, implementation, and monitoring of policies and procedures, quality improvement, meeting goals of fiscal efficiency through billing and budget management, and leading initiatives to enhance collaboration and communication with internal and external stakeholders.

Dr. Hersh has been practicing medicine for 27 years, becoming a Diplomat of the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology in 1992.  After graduation from Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Dr. Hersh received his medical degree from the University of Medicine & Dentistry of New Jersey – Rutgers Medical School, followed by post-doctoral work in psychiatry at the Yale University School of Medicine in New Haven, Connecticut.

Dr. Hersh has been a professor of psychiatry at the University of Connecticut Health Center, and at University of California – San Francisco. Prior to his work at Desert AIDS Project, Dr. Hersh served as Medical Director of Substance-Use Treatment Services for the San Francisco Department of Public Health.

Meet the Provider: Anthony Velasco – S …

Please join us in welcoming Anthony Velasco to the Desert AIDS Project medical team. Mr. Velasco is an Adult-Gerontology Primary Care Nurse Practitioner and has been working in HIV care since 2010. Prior to joining the Desert AIDS Project, he worked as a clinical nurse supervisor at UC San Diego Health in an acute medicine unit specializing in HIV, tuberculosis, hepatitis, opportunistic infections, and AIDS-related cancers.

Mr. Velasco earned both his undergraduate and graduate degrees from San Diego State University, graduating top of his class. He is trained in two advanced practice nursing roles – Nurse Practitioner and Clinical Nurse Specialist. In addition to being a board-certified Nurse Practitioner through the American Nurses Credentialing Center, Mr. Velasco was also awarded board certification in medical-surgical nursing and AIDS care nursing. In 2014, he was honored with the Academy of Medical-Surgical Nurses Career Mobility award. He belongs to the American Academy of Nurse Practitioners, Association of Nurses in AIDS Care, and Sigma Theta Tau Honor Society of Nursing.

In each of his academic and professional endeavors, he derives the greatest joy from building relationships with his clients, and from collaborating with all members of the transdisciplinary team to offer caring, comprehensive, and compassionate care.

Mr. Velasco is passionate about global health and HIV/AIDS care and has participated in medical missions to Honduras and Haiti. He recently relocated to Palm Springs, September 2016, with his 20-lb cat, Mochi. Although he misses surfing and paddle boarding, he is very eager to explore the gorgeous hiking trails of the Coachella Valley. He is very excited to be a part of the Desert AIDS Project.

*As a part of our new EPIC E.H.R., patients of D.A.P. can click on the Patient Portal button at the top of the website to be taken to My Chart, an interactive tool for online advice from a provider, as well as access to health information and test results, the ability to make appointments, to request prescription refills, and more. Visit the FAQ page to learn more about My Chart. You can even download the My Chart app for iPhone or Android.

Supporting the transgender community

When it comes to helping transgender individuals on a day-to-day basis … whether that means finding a job or accessing culturally-competent medical and psychological care … it’s all about putting aside the stereotypes and embracing people for who they are.

That was clearly the main message to the crowd of about 60 who gathered for Trans Pride 2016 at the Tolerance and Education Center in Rancho Mirage on June 28. The event was sponsored by D.A.P., using a portion of a grant from Riverside University Health System.

The message was reinforced – with a call to self-empowerment – thrown in by keynote speaker Aydian Dowling, the 27-year-old trans bodybuilder, activist, and vlogger who’s recently appeared on TV’s “Ellen” and has a popular YouTube channel called “ALionsFears.” Though Dowling didn’t win a competition to land the cover of Men’s Health magazine – a 2015 campaign backed by thousands – he was eventually featured on a special edition cover with other men. Little wonder that a recent Gay Times magazine cover featured a photo of his tattooed torso with the headline “What a man! The incredible journey of Aydian Dowling.”

D.A.P. Clinical Psychologist Dr. Parker discussed updates in medical and mental health treatment for the transgender community. Emerging best practice models promise to be less stigmatizing and more inclusive of input from the transgender community. Because transgender health care is an evolving practice, Dr. Parker recently attended a four-day education initiative by WPATH—the World Professional Association for Transgender Health—in Atlanta to sharpen his skill at treating transgender clients.

“Over the last five years there have been major changes in mental health approaches for transgender clients,” Dr. Parker says. “Access to services has grown, in part because of the Affordable Care Act. Clinicians and organizations can get new information and models for best practices that previously were hard to acquire if you didn’t live in a major center for transgender health.”

Examples of the new information includes Injustice at Every Turn, an exhaustive survey of 6,450 subjects documenting “in horrific detail” the discrimination that often befalls transgender people and its effect on their mental health. Significantly, the distress that comes from feeling the gender assigned at birth is wrong for you is now called “gender dysphoria” instead of “gender identity disorder.”

Dr. Parker says he believes those who changed the definition in the manual of mental disorders, DSM-V, listened to the transgender community. The goal was to stop labeling the condition a sickness, while maintaining a diagnosis that allows insurance to cover hormone, surgical and other care that might be needed.

Beyond health care, D.A.P.’s Career Building Coordinator Valerio Iovino – who helps D.A.P. clients find jobs, return to school, or gain valuable volunteer or internship experience – spoke to the crowd about innovations in support for the transgender community. For him, offering support is simple: fight the stigma that the world attaches to transgender job applicants and focus instead on their skills and knowledge.

“We don’t worry about the way people look,” Valerio told the applauding audience. “We focus on what they can do.”

Photo by Luis Alberto Gavela

Women’s Empowerment Day invites sharin …

The female clients of Desert AIDS Project will be front and center, as they receive manicures, massages, and sisterly love during the second annual Women’s Empowerment Day on May 21 … and it’s going to be all about health and wellness for women living with HIV and AIDS.

They’ll learn more about their unique health and emotional issues from leading specialists. A favorite from last year’s event, Dr. Laveeza Bhatti, MD, PhD., Director of the Hep C/HIV Co-Infection Clinic at AIDS Healthcare Foundation in Los Angeles, is returning with more good advice. Dr. Bhatti is an infectious disease specialist, who has worked with female HIV-affected patients for years. Dr. Bhatti will be joined by Jill Gover, PhD., director of Mental Health Services at The LGBT Community Center of the Desert. As a clinical psychologist, Dr. Gover specializes in addiction, anxiety, depression, aging, and LGBT issues.

“The Women’s Empowerment Day is important because we want our female clients to know we’re here to support their needs, just as we do their male counterparts,” says Brett Klein, Events and Retail Marketing Manager, who, along with Denise Marvel, Human Resources Coordinator, is organizing the day. Brett noted he and Denise want to introduce women to the many workshops, support groups, and alternative therapies offered at D.A.P.

Janine Bell, Substance Abuse Specialist who leads our Women’s Empowerment Group, explains that reaching women, who comprise about 5% of D.A.P.’s client base, is difficult because they’re not as “out” about their HIV-positive status as gay men. Many of them are low-income single mothers who don’t hang out around D.A.P.’s campus and mingle. “After completing their medical, dental or case management appointments, they bolt,” Janine observes.

That’s why Brett feels it’s important for D.A.P. to extend a special invitation to women to let them know that D.A.P. is here for them, too.

“We learned at our first empowerment day that women experience the disease and its medications differently than men,” Brett says. “And there are very few outlets for them to learn about HIV the way they know it and share that knowledge with others who are going through the same thing.”

Last year, Dr. Bhatti explained HIV from a woman’s perspective and fielded questions that were both illuminating and touching. There were tears and reassurance among the audience of about 18 women, who shared their experiences. Dr. Bhatti applauded the size of the crowd saying it was unusually large for an event held by an AIDS service organization for women.

The second annual Women’s Empowerment Day will be held from 9:30 AM to 4 PM. on May 21 at D.A.P.’s main campus. The “safe space” day will include a session on building confidence and coping skills, a back-to-work career building seminar, breakfast, lunch, manicures, and massages.  Childcare services are available on request.

If you’d like to attend, please RSVP on or before May 11 by calling 760.992.0419.

Revivals Palm Desert soon to be “El Pa …

“Location, location, location” might be a realtor’s cliché but it still drives every retailer’s decisions about where to place their new store.

Location – to the third power — has driven Revivals Palm Desert to move from its location just off I-10, at 72-750 Dinah Shore Drive near Costco, and relocate seven miles south down Monterey Avenue to 72-885 Highway 111 near El Paseo. Still in Palm Desert, the new store will have the Westfield mall across the street and the posh El Paseo shopping district behind it. This popular corner at 111 and Monterey is awash in traffic that promises to drive Revivals sales skyward, according to Dane Koch, our Director of Retail.

“The move is all about location,” Dane says. “The store near Costco was so hard to find because we had no visibility from Dinah Shore.” With such heavy reliance on Costco shoppers, to sustain our business, the location offered little ability to grow. Expanding is essential for Revivals to continue its important contribution to D.A.P.’s diversified revenue stream to provide patient and client services.

“The new location on 111 offers great visibility. We believe we’ll retain our current shoppers while gaining new ones,” Dane smiled. “Being located in a strip mall with other successful retailers will greatly increase our traffic and sales. I believe we’ll see a corresponding improvement in the store’s profit. And every one of our 55 volunteers and six paid staff are committed to help us do that in support of D.A.P.’s mission.”

While he declined to elaborate, Dane hinted that this new location will have a closer affiliation with D.A.P.’s 100 Women annual giving program. Watch for details in future issues of DOSE

Foot and vehicle traffic abound at the new location in the shopping center that’s anchored by Staples office supply center and Rite Aid pharmacy. At 15,000 square feet, the new store will be a bit smaller while still retaining the mod-meets-vintage flavor of Revivals, which sells new Mode furniture, along with gently used clothing, housewares, appliances and more.

While a formal Grand Opening date is still pending, the new location will have a “soft opening” on Saturday, May 28, offering a $25 coupon on every purchase of $50 or more. The coupons will be good for the entire month of June. The old location will remain open until very close to that date.


D.A.P.’s nutritionist prescribes good …

The health care world, including Desert AIDS Project, looks at nutrition as a key part of good health. That’s why Gustavo Wong, registered dietitian and certified exercise physiologist, joined us about eight months ago as yet another facet of D.A.P.’s holistic approach to the care of our patients and clients.

Food is medicine for all of us, particularly for those living with HIV. “As a way of eating to live a healthier life, I recommend less processed food while choosing more natural items from a specific array of food groups,” Wong says. “Those groups are vegetables, fruits, and whole grains as good sources of carbohydrates, along with protein from meats and healthy fats.”

FoodPlate1As a primary guideline to healthier eating, Wong recommends the “plate method.” The basic idea is to have half of the plate devoted to non-starchy vegetables with a quarter for proteins and a quarter for carbs. However, Wong does tailor recommendations to the needs of individual clients. For example, some foods aggravate gastro-intestinal systems of certain patients, announcing their presence in the form of diarrhea, constipation, or nausea.

“Fats generally are the culprits,” Wong says, “so I want to make sure clients don’t have GI problems. If they do, I adjust their diet accordingly.”

The non-starchy veggies on half the plate include salads, asparagus, beets, mushrooms, broccoli, cucumber, and spinach. Denser carbs that make up a smaller part of the plate include beans, lentils, peas, winter squashes, sweet potatoes, bread, pasta, and corn. Red meat, chicken, eggs, fish, nuts and nut butters round out the plate with protein. On colder days, some people prefer to have vegetable soup, as a way of incorporating those all-important vegetables into their diet.

For breakfast, Wong recommends such items as cereal with nuts and fiber, such as flaxseed meal, or by adding some bran. Regardless of which meal, we all still need the foundation of “macronutrients” – carbs, protein, grains, and healthy fats – to help build a strong immune system. And taking a lot of supplements is no substitute for a balanced diet.

Neither is processed food. Wong insists that the nutrients that have often been removed, limited, or destroyed in food processing are essential for all of us.

Click to watch the tasty video 

HIV and its care pose special challenges …

There are some dental health issues pressing on those living with HIV and AIDS that we should illuminate in February, when National Dental Health Month is marked.

Our dentists, Dr. Ryan Yamashiro and Dr. Daniel Jo, both graduates of Loma Linda University School of Dentistry, agree that some of these concerns weigh more heavily on many of our patients than they do on those who are not HIV-positive. The doctors describe those special challenges and what they do to help.

How important is good dental hygiene for those with HIV?

Dr. Jo: In general, it’s really important for any patient to have good oral hygiene. But yes, some of the medications our patients take can create complications of the mouth.  If you don’t have good dental hygiene you can experience more problems such as gum disease and cavities than a person who isn’t HIV positive might face.

What are some of the oral challenges faced by people living with HIV?

Dr. Yamashiro: Some of the patients have candidiasis, (a fungal yeast infection also known as thrush.)  They take a lot of medications so decay can be accelerated with them. Many also suffer from dry mouth due to some of the medications they’re taking and that also can cause decay. They also have problems with dry mouth in general. They just don’t really salivate that much and it can cause a lot of problems. We try to help manage all of that with them.

How much of that do you see here at D.A.P.?

Dr. Jo: It’s a pretty common problem. It can affect their condition in terms of their HIV.  That goes back to oral hygiene. In general, it’s important to have a healthy oral environment by maintaining the teeth they have, avoiding gum disease, and trying to keep them as healthy as possible.

What do you do about dry mouth that’s a function of HIV, or the amount, or type of medications the patient is taking?

Dr. Yamashiro: Sometimes there’s not a lot you can do. We can prescribe Salagen, (which stimulates salivation), to patients. For some it works, for some it does not work. There’s also salivation replacement therapies they can buy at the store: ACT mouth wash and Biotene spray to name a couple. But they’re all quick fixes that don’t last all day. So, for a lot of patients, it’s difficult to take care of the problem 100%. Sometimes they have to work with physicians to get off those meds or change them. But for some that’s just not possible. They have to suffer with the dry mouth that leads to plaque build-up and tooth decay. It’s frustrating to them because they brush and floss and still get decay.  A lot of times it’s emotionally draining, because they say ‘why should I try when I still keep having this problem?’

Are there any changes in the dental clinic that we ought to know about?

Dr. Jo: Now that we’re a full Federally Qualified Health Center, it’s good for our patients and our workflow as well. The biggest change is we’re growing: They brought me in as the second full-time provider; we have another part-time hygienist; we have more assistance at the front desk. It’s good. We’re starting to scale up so we can provide more services to more patients. In terms of that, I think we’re on the right path.

D.A.P. tests new treatment for drug-resi …

Desert AIDS Project is studying a new treatment for a very pervasive sexually-transmitted infection (STI) that’s now become drug-resistant.

Under the direction of Dr. Steven Scheibel, D.A.P. is studying the efficacy, safety, and side effects of a drug that combats Nesseria gonorrhoeae, the bacteria that causes gonorrhea.

Gonorrhea is the second most common STI and a major source of morbidity worldwide. Without treatment, it can cause infertility, cervicitis, proctitis, urethritis, pelvic inflammatory disease, and pharyngitis. Babies grow outside the womb in some women and the infection makes both genders more susceptible to HIV, according to GlaxoSmithKline, sponsor of the study. They go on to say:

“The ability of Neisseria gonorrhoeae to develop resistance to antimicrobials has complicated the management of the disease, leading to an urgent need for new treatment options.”

D.A.P. is one of eight medical centers testing the new drug, called GSK2140944. The study invites 60 adults with gonorrhea infection to take a single dose of either 1,500-mg or 3,000-mg of GSK2140944. The study wants to know if the smaller or the larger dose works best. The study last about a week with two scheduled visits. On the first visit, doctors will dispense the drug and gather baseline information from the study subject. A follow-up visit, called the Test-of-Cure visit, occurs between day 4 and 8 and determines the subject’s response to the drug. That includes success, failure, and adverse effects. Although there are two scheduled visits, bad reactions to the new drug will be monitored until they are resolved.

So far, D.A.P. has enrolled three subjects in the study, to meet the six-subject goal for each site. Our clinical administrators are working on identifying additional subjects. “Right now, though, we have more subjects than any other site and we’ve enrolled them quickly,” says Rod Hagan, D.A.P.’s Clinical Research Coordinator. D.A.P. began accepting subjects about six weeks ago, while other sites have been at it since January. “We have a concentration of people in the Coachella Valley, who need support in fighting gonorrhea infection, so our services have to be cutting edge and we must be fast out of the blocks,” Dr. Scheibel states.

Although the name of the drug sounds like a chemical weapon from an action hero comic strip, the problem and the need for an immediate answer is very real.

According to the study protocol, a variety of antimicrobial agents have been used over the years for the treatment of gonorrhea. Effective treatment options for gonorrhea have diminished rapidly because of the emergence and worldwide spread of antimicrobial resistance to many drugs previously used or considered the first line. The study goes on to list six drugs that patients are taking to almost no effect.

“Azithromycin was the big tah-dah,” Rod says. “But N. gonorrhoeae has become resistant to it and there’s nothing else in the pipeline. Without a new treatment, it could be like it was at the turn of the century again and it could be fatal.”

D.A.P. is trying to keep that from happening. We’re participating in this study and several other clinical trials that aim to improve the lives of patients and clients living with HIV. The search for a new antimicrobial is one of five that D.A.P. has conducted in the past 12 months. Those studies include Medication Therapy Management, a study on HIV, aging, and the brain, a study that searches for a milder antiretroviral that we’ve called Switch, and a new treatment for anal dysplasia. These studies represent a new function we’ll perform for the HIV community here and abroad. Beyond those in disadvantaged communities in the Coachella Valley, many others — nationally and globally — will benefit from our findings.

“Our search for a new treatment for this drug-resistant strain of gonorrhea is one of the most important things we can do,” Dr. Scheibel says. “We have to get out in front of this challenge because it threatens us locally and globally.”


In the Coachella Valley… “throw a ro …

That’s how clients of Desert AIDS Project describe the prevalence of crystal methamphetamine –commonly referred to as meth, crystal, Tina, ice, or glass, among other street names – in the Coachella Valley. Just as crystal meth has become a social problem on a global scale, our clients insist it plagues many of the people D.A.P. seek to provide medical care and social services.

Ray Robertson, Client Wellness Services Center Manager, knows this all too well. He was already a certified recovery counselor with about 20 years of experience leading a local, residential treatment facility before coming to D.A.P. more than five years ago. Having earned 29 years of sobriety himself, Ray sensed that addiction is an issue among many of our patients and clients living with HIV, who need a way back to a safer, saner life.

So he established the “Crystal Meth Action Team,” which held its first meeting this summer. Ray knew that D.A.P. had previously organized the “Crystal Meth Task Force” some years ago, to take on its use valley-wide. However, the task force dissolved in part because its mission was too broad and because it actually scared off some of the people it wanted to attract. When people encountered the Crystal Meth Task Force at the popular Thursday evening street fair in downtown Palm Springs, they thought they were being targeted by the police.

“We’re not going to ferret out users and bring them to judgment day,” Ray told team members at an initial brainstorming session. “What we’re going to be doing is opening doors to recovery.”

The Action Team’s primary goal is to develop strategies for creating a compassionate, nonjudgmental space where clients will feel welcomed and safe in sharing. No matter whether they use crystal meth themselves or have someone in their life who does, the Action Team members want to see that clients receive the help they ask for … whether that is simply more information, a chance to talk with someone who understands, or to actively engage in care. At the first gathering, members shared their experiences with meth and other substance use. Some are in recovery while others haven’t “used” but have watched friends and loved ones wrestle with substance abuse challenges.

Team members also discussed why they joined and what they believe should be done for those in the grips of this powerful habit. Many spoke from experience:

“I got HIV from sharing a needle I used to shoot crystal.”

“When you’re ‘slamming’ meth, it takes over and you forget everything else.”

“When you use meth, there are three possible endings: dead, in jail, or in recovery.”

Be they former drug abusers or “normies,” who’ve never used, team members agreed that users must be offered an avenue to recovery that’s safe, humane, and free from judgment or stigma. During the first meeting of the Crystal Meth Action Team, Ray diagrammed this concept for how recovery might begin to happen:

“Let’s open a corridor to doors – and behind each door is yet another recovery option.
Let’s make it comfortable for anyone to open those doors without fear of repercussions.”

The diagram resembled a pathway leading north with several roads intersecting it along the way. Ray labeled each of those connectors as team members suggested services: a helpline; education, outreach, and mentoring; referrals to 12-step programs such as Narcotics Anonymous; safe social connections; strategies to break the connection between sex and meth; housing options during recovery; and literature describing meth’s effect on the body, particularly when HIV-positive. Several team members were enthusiastic about the books “Chasing the Scream” and “Overcoming Crystal Meth Addiction,” the latter showing what the drug does to brain chemistry and physiology.

Team members are, understandably, concerned because of the unfortunately all-too-common link between meth and HIV. The New England Journal of Medicine calls meth an extremely strong stimulant that provides an escape from stress, depression, alienation, and loneliness. It increases sexual arousal while reducing inhibition and judgment. The drug often crosses paths with people who are under tremendous emotional duress because of their illness. Throw in homophobia and stigma attached to HIV, and you have a perfect storm touching down in the Coachella Valley.

Medical trials suggest that people living with HIV who are also using meth often have lapses in their antiretroviral treatment, which might make their infection drug resistant. It can also rearrange the brain chemistry causing psychosis and depression so that users cannot feel good without pharmaceutical help. “People struggling with addiction are in emotional pain and the remedy they turn to is as harmful as it is habit-forming,” Ray says. “As holistic healthcare providers, we want to address all parts of what is causing pain for our clients and patients, helping them back to full and healthy lives.”