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(The Root) -- Despite decades of public service campaigns that drive home the importance of knowing one's HIV status, getting tested is far from routine for many Americans. Of the estimated 1.1 million people living with HIV in the U.S., nearly 1 in 5 remain unaware that they are infected with the virus.

An innovative pilot project from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, however, hopes to make HIV testing as customary as a blood pressure check -- by expanding the service into neighborhood pharmacies and retail-store clinics.

In advance of National HIV Testing Day (June 27), on Tuesday CDC officials announced a two-year pilot that will roll out in 24 rural and urban stores, located in areas with high rates of HIV infection, where staff is being trained to deliver confidential rapid HIV testing on-site. The program is already under way at two Walgreens stores in Washington, D.C., and Chicago; a BioScrip pharmacy in Lithonia, Ga.; and community-based pharmacies and retail clinics in Riverdale, Md.; Oakland, Calif.; and Billings, Mont. The project's remaining locations are scheduled to be ready by the end of summer.

"Pharmacies have a vastly untapped potential to deliver HIV testing in settings that are more accessible, and they are less stigmatizing for people who really don't want to go into STD clinics or health departments to be tested," Donna McCree, the associate director of health equity for the CDC's Division of HIV/Aids Prevention, told The Root.

"Pharmacies are everywhere, and millions of Americans enter them every week," she continued. "Our data also tells us that about 30 percent of the U.S. population lives within a 10-minute drive of a retail clinic. So this is our attempt to bring testing to you, where you are."

The CDC plans to use results from the pilot to develop a sustainable model that can be replicated across the country. "We are looking forward to seeing what the pilot tells us, and what lessons we will learn, so that we can design a comprehensive toolkit for more pharmacists to use toward implementing HIV testing," said McCree.

Pointing out that a third of people with HIV don't get tested until so late in the course of their infection that they develop AIDS within one year of their diagnosis, McCree believes that making the procedure more convenient and accessible will empower more people to learn their status. "That's the critical first step to ending this epidemic: knowing your status and getting linked to care," she said. "This is too important to remain in the dark."

Cynthia Gordy is The Root's senior political correspondent.

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