‘Déjà vu’: HIV-positive Pittsburghers say we have much to learn about COVID by comparing it to our other deadly epidemic


PUBLIC SOURCE — When stay-at-home orders for the coronavirus were announced in March, some Pittsburghers who have lived with HIV for decades felt what they described as post-traumatic stress from the first epidemic they lived through. Several Pittsburghers living with HIV told PublicSource the COVID pandemic echoed many of the scariest and most dangerous parts of living through the HIV and AIDS epidemic, including confusion about the science, social isolation, a reluctance to adopt public health measures, and a lack of leadership from the president of the United States. They said the way many have dismissed deaths of the elderly from COVID-19 in order to open the economy reminded them of how gay men’s health was passed over during the AIDS crisis, a time of rampant homophobia.

Even some of the same scientists at the forefront of the HIV crisis, such as Dr. Anthony Fauci and former CDC Director Robert Redfield, returned to play central roles in the latest pandemic. Some healthcare experts who have worked during both the HIV and COVID epidemics said comparing both epidemics could provide insight as we continue to address COVID-19 and try to prevent future epidemics. 

The new epidemic

HIV status on its own probably doesn’t make them more at risk because many are controlling the virus with daily drugs, said IDM chair, Dr. Charles Rinaldo, who has been studying a group of HIV-positive men at the University of Pittsburgh for 36 years. But new research shows that men living with HIV are developing other chronic diseases that do put them more at risk, Rinaldo said. 

HIV-positive individuals are showing signs of aging more quickly. They develop heart disease, lung disease, and kidney diseases earlier and more frequently than others their age, Rinaldo said. These diseases make them more at risk of dying from COVID-19. Because a disproportionate number of Black men have HIV, this is one of the reasons more Black men are dying from COVID-19.

HIV disease persists, particularly among younger gay Black men living in the South, said Dr. Mackey Friedman, an IDM and BCHS faculty member and the co-director of the Center for LGBT Health Research at Pitt. “If you think about our social safety net as a society and think about areas in communities that are less privileged—so populations and places with lower social safety net access and utilization and higher degrees of stigma and disparagement,” he said, “that’s where you’re going to find HIV highest.”

And while 86% of HIV cases are diagnosed, more than a quarter of those diagnosed cases don’t receive adequate medical care and 40% of those cases still don’t have their viral loads suppressed, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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See also: How activists pushed to include people with HIV in COVID-19 vaccine trials

Photo: Marc Wagner describes troubling parallels between the response to COVID-19 and the HIV epidemic. (Jay Manning/PublicSource)


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