December 21, 2017 at 12:25 am PDT | by Michael K. Lavers
Puerto Ricans with HIV/AIDS continue to struggle after Maria

Anselmo Fonseca of Pacientes de SIDA Pro Política Sana, left, works with Jesús Cruz, a social worker at Bill’s Kitchen, a San Juan-based organization that prepares meals for people with HIV/AIDS, to serve food to the elderly after Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico on Sept. 20, 2017. (Photo courtesy of Anselmo Fonseca/Pacientes de SIDA pro Política Sana)

The situation for people with HIV/AIDS in Puerto Rico remains precarious three months after Hurricane Maria devastated the island.

Anselmo Fonseca of Pacientes de Sida Pro Política Sana, an HIV/AIDS service organization that is based in the Puerto Rican capital of San Juan, told the Washington Blade last week during a conference call that Maria flooded the office in which he and his colleagues worked. He said Pacientes de Sida Pro Política Sana has “basically been operating out of” Bill’s Kitchen, a San Juan-based organization that provides meals to people with HIV/AIDS in Puerto Rico.

Bill’s Kitchen lost electricity when Hurricane Irma brushed Puerto Rico on Sept. 7. Food and Friends in D.C. has donated $35,000 to Bill’s Kitchen in order to buy a generator.

“We’ve lost homes,” Fonseca told the Blade. “We’ve lost food, opportunities to see our doctors on a regular basis.”

Maria made landfall on Puerto Rico’s southeast coast on Sept. 20 with 155 mph winds.

The hurricane’s official death toll in Puerto Rico is 64, but Gov. Ricardo Rosselló on Monday ordered a review of this figure amid widespread reports that suggest there may be more than 1,000 Maria-related deaths in the U.S. commonwealth. Statistics from the Puerto Rican government indicate the island’s electrical grid — which was compromised before Maria and Irma — is at 65.4 percent capacity.

More than 200,000 people have left Puerto Rico since Maria.

Maria has ‘affected all of Puerto Rico’

The Puerto Rico Community Network for Clinical Research on AIDS is based near the main campus of the University of Puerto Rico in Rio Piedras. Roughly 900 people from across Puerto Rico — people with HIV/AIDS, women, drug addicts, people who are homeless and young people between 13-24 — receive services from the organization each year.

Puerto Rico Community Network for Clinical Research on AIDS Executive Director Rosaura López-Fontánez, told the Blade last week that her organization “has lost over” $250,000 in equipment and medication because of Maria. She said Maria also destroyed all of the Puerto Rico Community Network for Clinical Research on AIDS’ testing equipment and it “had to redo” its two clinics.

López-Fontánez told the Blade the organization began to operate once again a week after Maria.

She said a local pharmacy provided space that allowed patients to receive their medications “with no problem.” Wilfred Labiosa, co-founder of WAVES AHEAD, a group that works with at-risk groups in Puerto Rico, told the Blade on Tuesday during a telephone interview that the 21 people with HIV with whom he works now have “stable” access to medications through the mail.

“They have been able to finagle that,” he said.

López-Fontánez told the Blade her organization’s dental clinic was able to operate in the office of a dentist who subcontracted space for $100 a day. She also said Bill’s Kitchen is cooking meals for her staff who have “suffered tremendously.”

“It has affected all of Puerto Rico, that includes the HIV and the LGBT community,” said López-Fontánez.

She said three members of her staff and two clients have left Puerto Rico since Maria. Michael Kahane, who is the Southern bureau chief for AIDS Healthcare Foundation, which continues to support Maria relief efforts in Puerto Rico, told the Blade on Monday during a telephone interview that the “thing that I hear more than anything right now is a ticket out.”

“That’s unfortunate, but the basic feeling of people with whom I’ve spoken is whether or not they want to live in Puerto Rico,” said Kahane. “It’s not something they can do until normal life is restored.”

Federal government response ‘has been dismal’

Puerto Rico has one of the highest HIV/AIDS infection rates in the U.S. People with HIV/AIDS were vulnerable before Maria because of a combination of factors that include a lack of resources to fight the epidemic, Puerto Rico’s debt crisis and poor infrastructure.

San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz told the Blade last month during a press conference at the U.S. Capitol Visitor Center that officials stocked up on medications and other supplies for the city’s AIDS clinic before Maria made landfall. Her administration is also working with AIDS Healthcare Foundation to provide generators to people with HIV/AIDS and service organizations.

San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz speaks to reporters at the U.S. Capitol Visitor Center on Nov. 1, 2017. She told the Washington Blade after the press conference that her administration is doing what it can to help people with HIV/AIDS after Hurricane Maria devastated the U.S. commonwealth in September. (Washington Blade photo by Tom Hausman)

Kahane noted to the Blade that his organization in the days and weeks after Maria organized four airlifts that brought generators, water purification and personal hygiene kits, medications, feminine products and diapers to Puerto Rico.

He said the first generators went to health care centers and pharmacies across the island “to make sure those entities were able to receive patients and care for patients and take the burden off hospitals.” Kahane told the Blade that Yulín has requested another shipment of 50 generators for people with HIV and/or other chronic diseases.

“If AIDS Healthcare Foundation can do this, why can’t the federal government do this,” asked Kahane.

Yulín remains among the most vocal critics of President Trump’s response to Maria. Fonseca and López-Fontánez both echoed Yulín when they spoke with the Blade.

“The response has been dismal at the very least,” said Fonseca. “Some have even called it criminal negligence.”

López-Fontánez told the Blade that Puerto Ricans are still living “without rooves over their head” because of the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s slow response to Maria. She also noted some of her patients have told her the only food to which they have access each day is the lunch they receive at her organization’s HIV/AIDS prevention center and a bag of rice they get for dinner.

“Right now I am so angry,” said López-Fontánez. “We’re supposed to be U.S. citizens. We’re not being treated as U.S. citizens.”

The Puerto Rican government’s response to Maria has also been criticized.

Kahane acknowledged Puerto Rico’s electrical grid was “severely compromised” before the hurricanes.

He told the Blade that Rosselló’s apparent reluctance to criticize Trump over his response to Maria has sparked anger on the island. Kahane also described Yulín — who appeared at a World AIDS Day concert in Miami that AIDS Healthcare Foundation organized — as a “rock star.”

“With the limited resources that she has for running a municipality, her response has been overwhelmingly terrific,” said Kahane. “There’s obviously the state response and then there’s the municipality response.”

The Blade’s efforts to reach the Puerto Rican government for comment have thus far proven unsuccessful.

Yulín at last month’s U.S. Capitol Visitor Center press conference stressed the American people “have been there for us.” López-Fontánez agreed.

“The American people have been very good and very supportive of us,” she told the Blade.

Michael K. Lavers is the international news editor of the Washington Blade. Follow Michael

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