GREENSBORO, N.C. -- Thomas Clodfelter began the fight for his life nearly 30 years ago when he got a surprise in the mail after donating blood.
“I didn’t think anything else about it. Three months later, I got a letter saying I needed to report to the local health department,” he says.
The Lexington native found out he’d been exposed to HIV and two other chronic STDs. Soon after, he moved to Greensboro and got connected with the Triad Health Project. While figuring out his new normal, he decided that preventing the spread of HIV would be his mission.
“My mindset was to learn and I wanted to be a speaker. I wanted to be the face and the voice of HIV/AIDS.”
For more than 20 years, he’s talked anyone who will listen about HIV. He talks to more than 200 people a week.
“I’m not afraid to go back into the rural areas, the rugged areas, the shooting galleys where people buy their cocaine and their heroin and they do the shooting up right there. I’m up and down Martin Luther King [Jr. Drive] passing out condoms.”
He goes to barber shops and salons and even has an arrangement to set up shop at the Greensboro Transit Authority bus terminal. You can’t miss him.
“It may not be 'Thomas.' It may be the guy with the buttons or the hat or the red hair,” Triad Health Project Interim Executive Director Amy Reese said. “Lots of people have come in to get tested. We’ve gotten people he’s met who were positive and didn’t know how to get services that he’s referred to us. He is a major advocate for making sure people get services that they need here.”
His newest thing is wearing a condom-covered clock around his neck.
“It’s just to remind people that it’s way past time for you to use a condom, protect yourself, and know your status because if you do what you’re supposed to do by wearing a condom and wrapping it up, you’ll be 99.9 percent safer than you were the night before,” he says.
“So, when he goes around talking about HIV, pulling a suitcase that has condoms and slogans all over the outside of it, he’s making people look and they’re not able to look the other way which is what we tend to do as a culture,” Triad Health Project Clinical Director Mark Cassity said.
According to the latest numbers from the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services, there were more than 35,000 people living with HIV in North Carolina as of the end of 2017. There were more than 1,300 new diagnoses over each of the last three years.
We looked at the numbers for five counties in the Triad.
In Alamance County there are 438 people living with HIV, including 54 new diagnoses in the last three years.
In Davidson County, 301 people are living with the disease, including 34 new cases.
Randolph County has 216 total cases, including 20 new cases in the last three years.
In Forsyth County, the total is 1,647, including 201 new cases.
And the total in Guilford County is 2,501, with 383 new cases.
“This is what it’s about right here. Wrap it up. Use a glove and you won’t have to worry about it,” Clodfelter said.
Cassity and Reese say prevention and advocacy are hard because people just don’t like talking about HIV.
“We want to ignore this until it kicks down our own door,” Cassity said.
“We talk to people who are involved in our services who are in high school. That is how people are going to hear about HIV and that is unacceptable as far as I’m concerned,” Reese added.
Clodfelter, whose virus is now undetectable, hopes his work breaks down those barriers to keep people from catching HIV one person at a time.
“I’m going to continue to do this advocacy work because it has to be done, I do it and I do it good. I do it because of the men and women who need me to advocate for them,” he said.
For a closer look at the numbers in the state, check out the full report from the Department of Health and Human Services.