Thompson observed that some people who knew about his HIV status avoided physical contact with him. In social settings, they watched their drinks to make sure their glasses didn't get mixed up.

"Sometimes you feel like a pin cushion, like you're never going to find acceptance," Thompson said. "You feel like you're going to be looked at as a disease, not as a person."

What perpetuates the epidemic is a social issue, Reese said.

In Florida, the HIV/AIDS focus has historically been placed in southern part of the state. Some of the earliest HIV cases were found in Miami and in the Haitian immigrant population in South Florida. Miami still struggles with new HIV/AIDS cases; often, it has the highest AIDS rates in the country.

"You can go to Miami and you can put up a billboard, you can talk about condoms, AIDS and sex," Reese said. "You can't do that in Jacksonville. People will be offended. They don't want to talk about it or see it. They don't want to see billboards about it."

And Jacksonville is no small town: It has about 821,000 residents.

It's a different population, said Harmon.

"In north Florida, our population profile is more like Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi than it is central and south Florida. That generally means higher rates of poverty, lower rates of completing high school and college, and higher percentage of African-American population."

Duval County has a high percentage of African-Americans, and in Jacksonville, 71% of the total HIV cases are African-Americans.

Wade Price, 46, is a black gay man, proud father of three and grandfather of three.

He keeps a half-dozen orange prescription bottles of anti-HIV medications on his nightstand next to his red leather-bound Bible. The pages of his well-worn Bible are patchworks of green and orange highlights. He reads scriptures every night and attends a Baptist church twice a week.

Because his faith is crucial, Price decided to tell the head minister of his church how he struggled with being gay. He wanted to have prayer meetings with ministers and start a church support group.

Price told the minister: "I'm not the only one. Lots of people are keeping quiet, living double lives."

The minister rebuffed him, saying, "Wow, it's times like this, I don't like being a minister."

"That's one aspect of black churches," Price said. "They want to turn blind eyes to it. ... I'm fighting this battle on my own."

Price left that church and found another one last month that is more accepting.

"We pretend it's not happening," Price said. "The virus is being spread. You want to pretend like sex isn't happening. They say, 'Condoms, oh, no! That's not for God!' What's not for God is living with ignorance."

The social climate in northern Florida tends to be more conservative, said Harmon.

"There may be a reluctance to talk about this in the family, in the church, in other social settings and to perhaps ignore it," he said.

But there are signs of change. Churches in the community have started to talk about the HIV/AIDS epidemic, said Veronica Hicks, 50.