Before There Was Coronavirus
The Aliveness Project are continuing to serve to-go meals every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. and supply their members with enough food to last two days. Photo courtesy of Dylan Boyer
The Aliveness Project and JustUs Health share how COVID-19 is affecting people living with HIV/AIDS.
Before coronavirus, when people thought of pandemics, they likely remembered one that of the 1980s: HIV/AIDS. Due to the rapidly rising death tolls, HIV/AIDS was quickly labeled a pandemic unlike anything ever seen before. Today, people living with HIV/AIDS can live long, healthy lives despite their diagnosis. But could COVID-19 change that?
Dylan Boyer, event and communication manager of The Aliveness Project, a community and wellness center for people living with HIV/AIDS, says that they are concerned about the effects of COVID-19 on people living with HIV/AIDS because people with preexisting conditions, compromised immunity, or those older in age are at higher risk of developing a serious illness from the virus.
“Over a third of the people we serve at Aliveness are over the age of fifty. We are specifically concerned about those in the community with a lower CD4 T-cell count, which indicated a greater immune suppression,” Boyer says. “Another concern we have is the impact COVID-19 is going to have on the mental health of people living with HIV/AIDS.”
Boyer says that many parallels can be drawn between the HIV/AIDS pandemic that began in the 1980s and the current COVID-19 outbreak, first being the fear and isolation that we are all experiencing along with ruminating questions like “Am I sick?”, “Have I transmitted anything to a loved one?, and “Is there testing available for me?”
“We have seen the LGBT+ community spring into action with loving support as we navigate the challenges of this crisis, being another huge parallel to the devastating days of the AIDS crisis,” he adds.
Other parallels between the two pandemics, Boyer says, are the stigmatization of certain groups and the fact that both can be deadly.
“However, being diagnosed with COVID-19 is not the death sentence that HIV/AIDS was in the early years of the crisis,” he mentions. “With the advancements of new drugs to treat HIV/AIDS, we are now seeing far less death. Let’s hope that the scientists can do the same for COVID-19.”
Boyer also notes the importance—during both pandemics—to thank health care workers. “We cannot forget the heroism of our frontline essential workers, most importantly our health care workers!”
Though there are similarities between the two pandemics, Boyer says they also tend to see a staggering amount of differences. “The most notable difference is the amount of national/media attention COVID-19 has received over the past weeks,” he says. “Keep in mind, over 20,000 people died of AIDS before President Reagan addressed the pandemic publicly to the nation in 1985.”
In response to COVID-19, The Aliveness Project has changes the way it operates. To prevent the spread of the virus among members and staff, Boyer says they closed all of their public spaces (the lobby, community room, dining room, and therapy rooms). They are continuing to serve to-go meals every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. and supply their members with enough food to last two days (lunch and dinner). Their food shelf program has expanded, too. Boyer says they now serve thirty people each day with sixty pounds of groceries (1,800 pounds per day or 5,400 pounds per week).
The Aliveness Project is considered an essential service, but they had to postpone their largest fundraiser, Dining Out For Life, due to COVID-19. People can still donate through www.aliveness.org or direct mail to 3808 Nicollet Ave. S., Minneapolis.
Another organization dedicated to supporting those living with HIV/AIDS, especially in times like the current pandemic, is JustUs Health, which works for equitable health care access and outcomes for people who experience injustice at the intersection of health status and identity.
Like Boyer, Paul Skrbec, a JustUs Health spokesman, says there are many parallels that can be drawn between COVID-19 and HIV/AIDS, including social distancing, stigma, and discrimination.
“We know that social distancing will help reduce the spread of COVID-19, but we are mindful that it can also lead to unhealthy isolation,” Skrbec says. “In the 1980s, many AIDS patients were extremely isolated when the stigma of the disease was at its peak. We’ve learned from this history that isolation can also take a toll on people’s mental health and increase anxiety.”
Though the physical impact of COVID-19 on people with HIV/AIDS is not fully known, JustUs Health has worked with the Minnesota Department of Health and the Midwest AIDS Training & Education Center (MATEC) to provide information for people who are living with HIV/AIDS on how to keep themselves healthy during COVID-19, which can be found on JustUs Health’s COVID-19 response page.
In addition to this information on its website, JustUs Health’s behavioral health clinic is offering teletherapy for all clients, and all of the core services are functioning virtually. Like The Aliveness Project, several of JustUs Health’s upcoming events have been postponed, including the Opportunity Conference and the Transforming Care luncheon. The Minnesota Walk to End HIV is still planned for October 10, and JustUs Health is working with a number of organizations to come up with virtual plans for Pride this summer.
“We have seen an increase in clients who need our services and have also incurred unplanned expenses to meet these demands,” Skrbec says. “Direct donations to JustUs Health via our website, www.justushealth.org/donate, will allow us to continue bringing our services to the people in our community who need our help.”