World AIDS Day: Strides Made, but COVID Caution
By Dianne Anderson
No one really understood HIV in the early days of the virus, how it acted. Medical professionals couldn’t even predict how the bodies were going to be after death.
As a mortician, Margo Malone recalls how they treated HIV much the same way as with the start of COVID-19 pandemic. Back then, she was getting at least one AIDS death every day or every other day.
“Everybody became a suspect,” she said. “We didn’t know exactly how to treat the virus, at that time there was a heightened fear of how it was transmitted. Could you die from it?”
Malone, who is also a missionary, saw the impact around the world within her church work. When she first went to Africa in 2008 and again in 2011, a friend of hers had lost several in her circle from AIDS.
“We had gone to a hospital where children and babies had AIDS, there were large numbers in the Kenya area. Outside of Nairobi in the rural communities, they don’t get any kind of treatment for anything, so they [were left] to die.”
She hasn’t seen one death from an HIV/AIDS case in a long time.
“Now we almost treat it like a common cold,” she said, emphasizing that almost isn’t yet quite good enough.
HIV is now more manageable, as long as it’s not mixed with COVID-19.
Recently, Philip Yeager, Executive Director and CEO of Radiant Health Centers, said they held their first COVID-19 vaccine event, and he expects to administer more. Based on what providers know, he said those with HIV are at higher risk for COVID-19.
“We have seen HIV has truly impacted communities of color in a greater way than ever, and we’re seeing the same thing with COVID, especially folks with HIV,” he said.
When Yeager first started volunteering with the local HIV/AIDS program Radiant Health Centers, formerly known as AIDS Services Foundation Orange County, he said the latino community was hit hard. While there wasn’t a large Black community, both groups suffered disproportionate representation.
It continues today due to the COVID pandemic, but mixed with a pre-existing condition like HIV/AIDS, it can be deadly.
Outreach and prevention targeting communities of color is his priority. The program anticipates a CDC 5-year grant to provide higher impact prevention on communities of color as they continue expanding medical services.
Usually, for other providers, it takes from six to 12 weeks to get treatment, and a burden for the uninsured to navigate the system. Today, he said if someone walks into their Radiant clinic and learns they are HIV positive, the program is funded through the State Department of Public Health to provide the antiretroviral treatment they need before they walk out the door.
“We’ll figure out how it gets paid for later, whether it’s insurance. Let’s get you started. We try to remove a lot of those barriers,” he said.
HIV/AIDS is no doubt more manageable, but he said it must be controlled for a lifetime. There are still many questions about how HIV survives.
When Yeager first started volunteering, he saw how the stigma forced the infected to deal with their pain in total isolation, and he wanted to help. In 1995 when protease inhibitors were announced, he and other providers expected to close their doors within ten years because of the promising new treatment.
He said staying on medications can keep the virus suppressed enough to live an average life expectancy, but there is still a long way to go.
“And here we are 25 years later, we continue to see infections at a very consistent level,” he said.
On December 1, the program hosts its donor reception for World AIDS day to share its successes with donors who help keep their services going out to men, women and children living with AIDS in Orange County. They will host a candlelight vigil on Main Street in Laguna Beach.
Jonathan, 36, not his real name, is well familiar with what happens when someone with HIV/AIDS doesn’t stay on top of their health.
He is seeing the LGBTQ+ have more awareness, and taking some precautions, but he’s not seeing a great rush to get the vaccine. The nation is now facing a serious uptick in COVID-19 cases, but the impact on the HIV/AIDS community can be serious, especially on communities of color that always take the hardest hit.
He is African American, and also reluctant to get the shot. He said it’s not because of conspiracy theories, or the “government bogeyman,” rather he has been almost completely organic for years.
“Eventually I’ll have to get the vaccine based on my work,” he said.
Denial and stigma are still strong in the LGBTQ+ community. His ex-partner was HIV positive and died last year with COVID-19 at the height of the pandemic. Most likely, he said it was because he was not taking his HIV medication.
Jonathan said that he wishes he could go back in time and have made him take better care of himself.
“He was thin and sickly before COVID began, when he started losing weight living an unhealthy life before COVID, it hit him really hard,” he said. “We spoke when he was in a makeshift hospital, the COVID ward when all this broke out. A few days later he passed away.”
For more information and health services, see