They’re scared. Nearly 40 years after HIV/AIDS decimated the gay community, a new virus is raising fears once again. The fear may be unwarranted.
When details emerged about the dangers of COVID-19, many HIV-positive people worried that the coronavirus would wreak havoc on their already compromised immune systems. In March, more than 90 HIV and LGBTQ organizations penned an open letter to Congress detailing why COVID-19 poses increased risk to people living with HIV. The letter requested a special relief package to help this population. According to one local HIV specialist, COVID-19 does not pose an automatic risk to people are HIV positive. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) website says it does not have any specific information regarding the risk to HIV patients.
Still, Ediana Sharpe is a case manager at RAIN, and she says some of her clients are concerned. In a phone interview, Sharpe translated for a 58-year-old client who does not speak English. He is HIV positive and cares for his 85-year-old mother who has diabetes. He was laid off because of the quarantine, but he’s been trying to find work, any work. He and his mother moved to Charlotte from Venezuela three years ago because the U.S. offered better care to help people with HIV, Sharpe translated. Her client needs work to pay their bills, but he’s also fearful that he is at more risk of contracting the virus and passing it on to his mother.
Financial relief would help Steven, 35, who was laid off from his job as a server.
“I never thought a restaurant would shut down,” he said in a phone interview.
At the same time, Steven said until his restaurant closed, he worried about working. He is HIV-positive and has diabetes.
“I’m scared every day,” he said.
It’s easy to understand why.
According to the World Health Organization, older adults and persons with pre-existing medical conditions or compromised immune systems are at a higher risk for severe illness from the virus. This includes people who have heart disease, lung disease, cancer, high blood pressure or diabetes. The CDC repeated that message and the media publicized it ad nauseum.
“Unfortunately the news is not discussing what’s your CD4, what’s your comorbidity,” said Wes Thompson, medical director at Amity Medical Group, “It’s triggering a lot of more angst then it has to. Being HIV-positive alone does not increase your risk for a more severe response to COVID-19.”
Thompson has specialized in caring for people with HIV for 35 years. Several patients requested doctor’s notes to excuse them from work, but he said he does not write them for everyone. He gives them on a case by case basis.
“The vast majority of my patients that ask me about their risk for COVID19 are out of genuine concern,” he said.
Thompson, like the CDC website, said it’s all about a person’s CD4, or T-cell, count. Those are the immune cells that the HIV virus kills. A normal person has CD4 counts of 350-1,500. A CD4 count below 500 indicates an HIV positive person is at higher risk, he said.
“HIV-positive individuals with a CD4 count above 500 are at no increased risk, compared to HIV-negative individuals,” he said.
However, a low count combined with other medical conditions such as diabetes or emphysema poses an increased risk to a more severe response to COVID-19, he explained. Thompson said regardless of a person’s CD4 count, everyone has the same risk of contracting the disease, but how a person’s body responds to the virus is based on the CD4 count and other risk factors
Thompson said people do not realize how much medicine has advanced in treating HIV. To put that into perspective he says, “its easier to live to a ripe old age with HIV than it is with diabetes. That’s how far we’ve come with HIV.”