Notes from the TN Dept. of Health: Long Term Survivors of HIV

The following information is provided through a partnership with the Tennessee Department of Health:

June is a month of great importance for people living with HIV. June 5th was HIV Long Term Survivors’ Day, a celebration of and a day of awareness for people who have been living with HIV for 20 or more years. In Tennessee, 4,126 people have been living with HIV for at least 20 years, and 252 people have lived with HIV for 30 years or more. 

The theme of HIV Long Term Survivors’ Day this year was “Not Our First Pandemic,” connecting the early years of the HIV epidemic to our current fight with COVID-19. Tennesseans in this group struggle with challenges managing their HIV including isolation, poverty, increased stigma amongst their age peers, and AIDS Survivor Syndrome. 

People who have lived with HIV for multiple decades have watched the world go from ignorance to knowledge about how a virus works, spreads, and is successfully treated. The present progression of COVID-19 in the United States and globally mirrors some of those same community and public health steps. 2020 will be the first year in more than a decade when National HIV Testing Day (June 27) does not result in large, in-person community gatherings and testing events. In many states, in-person Pride celebrations and parades have been cancelled or brought online. 

For those who have lived with HIV for decades, COVID-19 might have interrupted their medical appointments, mental health care, and health-promoting social interaction. Additionally, fear that their long-term immunocompromising condition might make them more susceptible to COVID-19 means there is a new cause for anxiety and distress. Currently, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services maintains that HIV alone is not one of the chronic conditions that puts people at increased risk for a life-threatening COVID-19 infection.

According to the CDC, people living with HIV trying to protect themselves from COVID-19 should be doing the same things recommended for all other Americans: maintaining daily healthy practices (including rigorous hand-washing and wearing a face mask when interacting outside the home) and reducing in-person social contact as much as possible. Maintaining their HIV treatment regimen during this time and continuing activities that reduce stress are vitally important. While many medical services are unavailable during COVID-19 community mitigation, HIV treatment and mental health care are essential services. Click here for a list of HIV medical providers in Tennessee that are designated as Ryan White Part B Centers of Excellence. Click here for more information about maintaining mental, social, and behavioral health during COVID-19 community mitigation. 

Day-to-day, we all have people and habits we turn to for emotional support and to curb rising stress. COVID-19 makes it harder to find opportunities to socialize, communicate with family, and keep up with healthy habits. For those struggling with substance abuse, this stress could contribute to desires to turn to unhealthy coping behaviors. Click here for a list of harm reduction programs providing services related to substance use and abuse near you. COVID-19 has interrupted our regular plans with friends and social interaction in public settings. There are supportive social groups all over Tennessee that are meeting or hosting activities online during the pandemic. Don’t let fear or discomfort with video conferencing get in the way of your ability to enjoy these new opportunities to connect with your peers. Click the links for more information about how to navigate Zoom, Go-To Meeting, Webex, and Google Hangouts/Google Meet

For people living with HIV who are at home, the activities we have grown accustomed to seeing in June are still happening, just in different forms. Globally, Pride organizations are coming together to create an online, international Pride event on June 27. For those who would normally refer their friends and family members not living with HIV to free testing at this time of year, many of the organizations on this list are now offering no-contact telehealth HIV testing.

This summer is both radically different from what we all expected, and eerily familiar for our HIV Long Term Survivors. No matter how different (or familiar) things look, we do have the tools we need to take care of ourselves and each other. 

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