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Supporting Young People Living With HIV During the COVID-19 Pandemic

Young people aged 13-24 are disproportionally affected by HIV and, in 2018, made up 21% of new HIV diagnoses. Marc Meachem, Head of US External Affairs, Larry Cohen, Executive Director and Co-Founder of Point Source Youth, and Mahlon Randolph, Youth Advocate, recently spoke about the unique challenges facing young people living with HIV. This week, we’re discussing how the coronavirus pandemic and spread of COVID-19 are exacerbating those challenges, and what young people living with HIV can do to seek support during this unprecedented time.

Across the country, the increased health precautions required to slow the spread of COVID-19 are adding to the challenges that many young people living with HIV already face navigating the healthcare system. While these measures are certainly important to help manage the spread of the virus, they also affect young people living with HIV who often depend on in-person interactions for their care and support.

Marc: We know young people living with HIV face a unique set of challenges overcoming stigma, accessing reliable health information and participating in the fight to end HIV. How are you seeing these challenges heightened during this pandemic?

Mahlon: COVID-19 has an impact on the way people treat one another and treat people who have a higher risk of getting the virus. We can compare this to the height of the HIV epidemic when people living with HIV were treated as contagious or refused services due to fears of transmission.

Marc: New strategies imposed to safeguard healthcare workers and preserve resources have changed the way people engage with their care providers significantly. How are you seeing COVID-19 affect how young people living with HIV navigate the healthcare system?

Mahlon: It is even more difficult to get face-to-face services today. Even case management and support services are hard to come by. Drop-ins and shelters are oftentimes closed, making it much more difficult to access the services young people living with HIV need. These resources are even less accessible to youth who already had a hard time getting support even before the pandemic.

Marc: Adolescence is a particularly trying time for many young people learning to navigate more responsibility and managing societal pressures that tend to be placed upon this age group. How do you think COVID-19 is impacting the mental health of young people living with HIV?

Mahlon: COVID-19 has a huge mental impact on people living with compromised immune systems. Even if you have sustained viral suppression, and therefore have no higher risk of contracting the coronavirus than the general population, the highly contagious nature of the virus tends to cause increased anxiety among those who are HIV positive in particular. Fears of contracting COVID-19 make it hard to plan for the future and really impact our ability to keep a positive frame of mind. LGBTQ+ youth experience depression and anxiety at higher rates already, making social withdrawal through “social distancing” especially difficult when this group needs each other now more than ever. When you are already potentially dealing with displacement due to your family’s lack of acceptance, social distancing can cause a lot of old trauma to resurface.

Marc: Young people, the LGBTQ+ community, cis and trans women, black and brown people, all face their own set of challenges that affect how they’re able to manage their health. Are there other challenges young people living with HIV are particularly affected by as a result of COVID-19?

Mahlon: Income is a major issue, which affects access to affordable housing and has made it much more difficult for young people to access housing resources.

Larry: Point Source Youth launched a National COVID-19 Needs Assessment and, a free weekly webinar series to provide the information needed by the national youth homelessness community during this crisis. The weekly series is an opportunity for communities to share their experiences, access leading experts, assess and overcome barriers, and use collective action to address youth homelessness on a national scale. We also provide weekly toolkits and videos to the more than 1,500 national youth homelessness leaders who access our COVID-19 resources every week.

ViiV Healthcare’s mission is to leave no person living with HIV behind. In these uncertain times, we remain absolutely committed to ensuring that we deliver on it. As the COVID-19 situation continues to evolve, we want to reassure everyone that the safety and well-being of all people living with HIV remain ViiV Healthcare’s top priorities. Our Positive Action team, for example, is continuing to work closely with community-based partners to understand the implications on their work and support them in the HIV response worldwide.

In addition to Point Source Youth, many other organizations are working to meet the growing need for information around the COVID-19 pandemic, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), World Health Organization and the federal government in partnership with CDC and US Department of Homeland Security - Federal Emergency Management Agency. As the situation rapidly changes, we will continue our careful assessment and encourage you to do the same by closely monitoring federal, state and community resources.