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Seeking truth in the war on the coronavirus

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Jewel Thais-Williams said she’d call back. She was on the other line and had been inundated with calls asking how she was doing after eye surgery. Three hours later, the almost 81-year-old LGBTQ icon was pumped, angry, going on and on about conspiracy theories – how “The Eyes of Darkness” had predicted the coronavirus in 1981 and how Donald Trump was using the virus or COVID-19 to spread fear and hate for his own political gain, just like in “The 9th Wave,” a book she read as a 12-year-old that still haunted her. The book is about political machinations that “frighten old people about having what they have now taken away that they vote for this guy.”

And while one eye was patched from surgery that day, the other one was fixed on cable news as President Trump declared a state of emergency.

“How do we really know what’s going on without having tests to let us know?” Jewel asked insistently. And without widespread testing to know if the virus is real and who’s got it where and telling everyone to be afraid and shelter in place and not to have gatherings of more than 10 people, she added, “there are no more protests and law enforcement can just arrest people on the spot.”

“This is happening to keep Trump in office,” Jewel said flatly. “Follow the money. We could have had pop up clinics by now. We could have converted Mobile HIV Testing vans to do coronavirus testing. But instead, Trump meets with bankers and other money men. What’s the alternative motive here?”

It was Tuesday night and former Vice President Joe Biden was cruising to victory in three more Democratic primary states. Jewel was watching that, too. She’d switched from Elizabeth Warren to Michael Bloomberg, then back to Warren but was now fully onboard with Biden.

“He’s the same decent, honest guy who looked me in the eye when we were talking,” she says, recalling their meeting at a White House Pride party. “Eyes are the window of the soul and that was the biggest thing between me and Joe – the dude is real. That’s what I see.”

The phone call ended agreeing to disagree about conspiracy theories. But the next day, March 18, Trump took to the White House podium and insisted that the virus came from China, so it is “the Chinese virus,” a term he declared is “not racist at all.

Trump – a man who used “bone spurs” as an excuse to avoid service during the Vietnam War – also declared himself a “wartime president” in this war on the coronavirus, saying he was invoking the Defense Production Act “in case we need it.”

The Korean War-era law enable presidents “to take extraordinary action to force American industry to ramp up production of equipment needed for national security,” according to Time.com.

Knowing Trump listens to right-wing conspiracy theorists,  it looks like Jewel Thais-Williams’ network of sources may not have been that far off. The plot of “Eyes of the Darkness” involves a Chinese military lab that manufactures a deadly virus in Wuhan city. Snopes confirmed the book passage but debunked the prediction of the virus.

Eerily, however, this theory feels like it could hatch into something akin to the fabricated “weapons of mass destruction” fiction that had America launch a first “Shock and Awe” strike against a foreign country and start the war against Iraq. In fact, Axios reported March 21, that U.S.-China tensions hit a dangerous new high, worrying many.

Meanwhile, a website called “Stop AAPI Hate” has been launched in the Bay Area to document hate crimes against Asians Americans and Pacific Islanders, including a Los Angeles boy attacked at his middle school.  “We are currently providing support to a child who had to go to the emergency room after he was assaulted and accused by bullies of having the coronavirus, and so that tells us we may need to work with schools to address shunning and school bullying but we need to know how widespread it is,” said Manjusha Kulkarni, executive director of A3PICON, told NBC/Bay Area.

The bottom line: with a president who consistently, boldly and unabashedly lies for his own self-aggrandizement, how is the American public supposed to believe anything Trump says – about anything, let alone a very real new virus that is claiming thousands of lives across the globe?

All the respected experts say “test, test, test” to find out where the virus is being spread. But the administration has failed on every front: containment is no longer applicable and mitigation is voluntary, though with Gov. Newsom’s official Order to stay home, law enforcement will now be looking for violators, according to the LA County Emergency Operations – but what happens next is unclear.

And yet, the American people themselves seem to be taking on the historic and mighty task bungled by the Trump administration, helping each other and helping non-profits help others, as well, such as volunteers showing up for Project Angel Food to prepare and deliver food to homebound people with life-threatening illnesses.

“Charity is often a vital first line of defense or the critical resource of last resort for families that struggle with food insecurity in America.  It is, however, inadequate to meet the daily needs of 40 million Americans who are food insecure,” Abby Leibman CEO of MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger, tells the Los Angeles Blade.

“The Federal Government has the most crucial role in ensuring that people have access to adequate resources to feed themselves and their families through its nutrition safety net programs, particularly SNAP. Even at the best of times those resources are stretched thin and in this time of crisis, they are getting further stretched just as they become more vital.  The current Administration has done everything in its power to DECREASE access to these benefits, in a shameful response to people who have been struggling and those made newly food insecure by the pandemic,” she says.

Empty grocery shelves (Photo by Karen Ocamb)

“Those who are more vulnerable, face even more barriers, particularly seniors, including LGBT seniors which is why MAZON funded a soon-to-be-released study with the Williams Institute to look into the matter of LGBT senior food insecurity,” Liebman says.  “For them, issues of stigma, lack of family support, lack of access to traditional employment and its benefits, drive far too many into poverty as they age.  Our Federal Government can do better, it must do better.”

Food and hunger are issues everywhere. Bamby Salcedo, founder and director of TransLatin@ Coalition, says she is still continuing the organization’s lunch program, but limiting other services.

TruEvolution CEO Gabriel Maldonado being honored by Assemblymember Cervantes and the California LGBT Legislative Caucus last June in Sacramento. (Photo via Maldonado’s Facebook page)

TruEvolution CEO Gabriel Maldonado says his organization has been hit hard.

“TruEvolution has canceled our all of our community and educational events for the next until April 15, 2020. We are going to re-evaluate any events taking place subsequently at that time. In addition, our strongest HIV testing partner, UC Riverside, has either postponed or canceled all campus events, including our HIV testing events,” he tells the Los Angeles Blade.

“We are very much concerned about the impact that this will have on our organization’s ability to provide services, and outreach to our clients,” Maldonado says. “Many of our clients rely on our storefront services for food, housing, and support groups. We are suspending our drop-in hours and will be providing virtual or appointment-only services. Last night, we had a client contact us at 2:00 AM who lost his job and was sleeping in his car as of this week. Much of the paperwork must be done and completed in-person and we also need to meet with him to successful link him into emergency housing. Business must continue. Clients have the same issues before the pandemic, and both social and medical services are even more critical now than before.”

Maldonado says the organization will be offering “walk-up services” during their support group hours and will be providing our clients with a hot meal, water, sanitizer, county resources and FAQs on COVID-19.

Still, confusion reigns.

“This is serious. We have an emergency,” trusted Rep. Maxine Waters told MSNBC. “We have a real serious problem with testing. First of all, we have so many people who need testing who can’t get testing.”

Waters, a political powerhouse and the first woman and first African-American Chair of the House Financial Services Committee, is a longtime LGBTQ ally, having been in Los Angeles and elected to Congress during the Second Wave of AIDS. The story she told MSNBC is akin to thousands of other stories of people or friends of people who have been sick or frightened and looking for help, found none. Her friend, at least, has powerful friends.

“I have a friend that I happened to call today,” she told MSNBC on March 13, “and she had gone to UCLA after having real symptoms. They gave her a test for influenza and then told her she didn’t have influenza. And she said, ‘What about the coronavirus tests?’ And they said they were not giving that test. She called a friend who has great influence and they told her to stay there, don’t leave,” Waters said.

“And this friend with great influence at UCLA forced them to give her the test. So, they gave her the test, but they couldn’t give her the results in any short period of time. So, they sent her home,” Waters continued.

“When I talked to her at home, she was in great pain, had terrific headaches, coughing and a fever. And she was waiting on the results from the test that they had been forced to give her at UCLA.”

Waters paused. “I don’t know what’s happening. I’ve got to check back to see if she ever got the results of that test,” she said. “But I do know this: she and her daughter are basically alone and I had to inquire about – did she have food in the house, or what was going on? She said someone was going to bring some food and leave it on the doorstep.”

This, Waters says, “is a situation, I think, that is typical of what is happening in this country. Unfortunately, we were not prepared. The greatest country in the world was not prepared for this pandemic.”

Not unexpectedly, having dealt directly with the Trump administration, Waters knows many people do not trust Trump.

“One of the problems that we have is that there’s not a lot of trust from the average American in the president of the United States,” she says. “Unfortunately, he has been documented to have lied so many times, to distort, to change the story.”

But lack of credible leadership results in real harm to real people in real time – and that time is now.

“I am worried about people with low income and the minimum wages that are going to be stopped from work. They’re not going to have jobs. They’re going to be fired. The business is going to close down, and they don’t have anywhere to go,” Waters says. “So, we’ve got to make sure that for those who do have unemployment insurance, that we expand that and that is what is being looked at….We’ve got to make sure that we give additional support to Medicaid and that was being proposed….So, we’ve got a lot of work to do.”

Another political powerhouse who is also a strong friend to the LGBTQ community is Rep. Adam Schiff, who represents Burbank to West Hollywood. As the leader of the House Impeachment committee, he has been getting very real death threats. Now he is facing another threat and is practicing the recommended “self-isolation” at home with his family after his lead investigator, counselor Daniel Goldman, recently tested positive for the coronavirus.

“I would be taking precautions anyway to limit my social interactions,” Schiff tells the Los Angeles Blade in a phone interview. “First, we began canceling large events, and then we began canceling smaller events, doing constituent meetings by phone instead of in-person. I scaled way back on my travel plans, and I think we had to cancel all of my constituent meetings before the situation with Dan, but I’m taking some additional precautions,” he says, adding that Goldman was likely infected after he left Schiff’s office in early March. “But out of an abundance of caution, we’re still being careful.”

At a tele-townhall on March 19, Schiff said he completed his self-isolation and has been working on getting relief for freelancers in the entertainment industry, in particular. He spent most of the call discussing testing, financial relief for unemployed and small business owners, including the prospect of forgivable loans.

“We’re going to be looking at what’s necessary so that people who cannot make their rent payment or their mortgage payments or have some kind of suspension – and also to make sure that none of this effects people’s credit in the long run because this is a pandemic that’s effecting us all, no matter how good someone’s planning may have been. We’re all in this boat together.” Schiff said.

“The main point in the stay home requirement is not so much because food is somehow limited or we need to ration but rather we want to make sure that people don’t unnecessarily expose others to the virus. The whole point there – and this gets to the expression these days about ‘flattening the curve’ – if we can slow down the progress of the virus, it means that our hospitals will be able to deal with the intake, that they can get through the current shortages of protective gear, that they can get through the current lack of sufficient numbers of ventilators. If, on the other hand, we don’t take these rather extraordinary steps, then we’re going to have an explosion of cases, our healthcare system is going to be inundated, there won’t be enough ventilators, for example, to go around, and there will be an unnecessary loss of life. And that’s really the point of social distancing, the point of staying home.”

Schiff will be holding another tele-townhall on March 26, details of which will be posted on his website and Facebook page.

As have many others, Schiff has noted the oddity of having Trump onstage with Vice President Mike Pence [who finally submitted to testing with his wife on March 21 after a staffer tested positive] clumped together with his coronavirus team for photos and television – and not exhibiting the social distancing of three-to-six feet they insist on for others.

“It is incongruous to hear the president talk about social distancing while he’s not social distancing. And people are standing around him and he’s leaning over to whisper to Mike Pence,” Schiff tells the Los Angeles Blade.

“There’s kind of a conflicting message, especially with what we’re saying. But it is certainly important to note that the degree that we are able to take precautions now and do sensible social distancing will significantly flatten the curve at which this virus spreads and help protect those with compromised health, or seniors.”

The significance of social distancing, especially with news that the infection can be spread “silently” by people who are asymptomatic, is that individuals must accept responsibility for themselves and prevent serious health consequences that could end up costing a lot of people their lives.

“So here, the public is really empowered to do something major to affect the severity of this crisis by taking some important steps that are going to be difficult for people,” he says. “We’re a social creature and we like going out to restaurants, and we like joining in public places and now we’ve been asked to move away for a period of time. So, things are moving very, very quickly, and steps that we thought were aggressive two weeks ago now, it’s been way too… It’s substantial. And who knows where it will be tomorrow.”

Schiff also took on some more precise question from the Los Angeles Blade on behalf of community agencies regarding the lack of testing, who’s paying for what and housing issues.

“There’s no question that the failure to test early and often has been the single biggest failure in the Administration’s response to this virus, and it’s inexcusable because we knew about it for weeks ahead of time,” Schiff says. “When we emerge from this crisis, the disastrous lack of any testing of patients in the first weeks of this outbreak will need to be the topic of major congressional oversight. Testing is becoming more available, though not fast enough, and it’s currently reserved for patients that are symptomatic and/or were exposed to an individual that has tested positive for the coronavirus.

“As of March 17, the testing capacity in California was 8,000 per day,” he says, noting the passage of the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, which Trump signed into law March 19. The law makes testing “free for all Americans — and we will continue pushing to increase our testing capacity by getting more tests into production so they will be more widely available. Americans have been fighting blind because of the lack of tests, but I’m hoping this changes immediately.”

Darrel Cummings, Chief of Staff at the LA LGBT Center, asked questions via the Los Angeles Blade before Gov. Newsom issued his Stay at Home Order on March 19.

Cummings notes “community health centers have a role to play with both their current, registered clients and among the communities where there are located.  To effectuate ‘social distancing’ within clinical settings, telemedicine helps but is not always a billable service.  Will you advocate with HRSA so that telemedicine can be billed the same as an in-person visit? The same question applies to mental health and psychiatry visits.”

“Yes,” Schiff says. “Telemedicine has an increased role to play as we try to minimize visits to clinics or hospitals, especially for at-risk patients. The emergency appropriations legislation Congress passed two weeks ago lowered the barriers for telemedicine reimbursement for Medicare patients, which is a good start, but we need to do more. California has asked the federal government for a waiver that would allow reimbursement to community health clinics for telemedicine visits at the same rates as in-person visits, and that is currently pending,” he adds. “I fully support moving as much diagnosis and treatment as we can online right now, because it’s safer for patients and doctors alike, and reduces demand on medical resources.”

Schiff also noted that the Community Clinic Association requested a national emergency declaration so they could be reimbursed for telehealth services. “Given President Trump’s recent declaration, Medicare is reimbursing for telemedicine, but Medicaid reimbursement remains an important issue,” he says, adding that the California Department of Health Care Services sent a request to CMS that would allow telehealth/virtual visits amongst other Covid-19 emergency responses in Medi-Cal. Once that is approved, California can send Medi-Cal dollars to clinics for telehealth.”

Additionally, to help with social distancing and keep clinics a safe area, community health centers have begun pre-screening patients for flu-like symptoms before they enter a facility and are encouraging patients to come in only when necessary.

“Clinics that serve particularly vulnerable populations like the LA LGBT Center, which sees a large immunosuppressed population, will rely on telehealth to help keep their patients safe,” Schiff says. “Drive-through testing has become available at some locations in Northern California to limit potentially infected people from coming into hospitals. I am hopeful drive-through testing will continue to become more widely available, but there is a limitation due to the lack of tests.”

What about support and guidance for organizations that provide housing or services for the homeless, or supportive/affordable housing and for the homeless population in general?

“Our homeless population faces a significant risk to contracting Coronavirus, and the city and state are beginning to step up,” Schiff says. “Gov. Newsom announced that homeless persons would be prioritized as a vulnerable population and the city is beginning to deploy resources directly to the homeless population where they are. But the federal government must also do more and I am advocating that federal assistance for the homeless be dramatically increased –both to deal with the broader epidemic of homelessness, but particularly the unique health risks now presented to this population. Much more must be done, and drastic steps to get people off the streets to create social distance may be necessary.”

AIDS Healthcare Foundation has offered recently purchased 74-room motel that has not yet been leased out as temporary housing for coronavirus patients.

Jeffrey King, founder and executive director of In The Meantime Men, is very direct, raising the issue of having sex during the coronavirus pandemic.

“The coronavirus has us all making major adjustments in our lives,” King says in a video posted on his Facebook page. “I want to encourage you to stay connected, and to consider your risk. Many of us are still engaging in sex. Our sex clubs and gay-specific social venues are closing now. Our social dating apps, however, are in full effect. Again – I want you to consider your risk and to act responsibly.”

King shares information provided by the Commission on HIV in Los Angeles County for individuals living with HIV and their possible concerns regarding the coronavirus.

The Commission advises, in part:

“The novel coronavirus is understood to spread mainly from person-to-person through respiratory droplets when an infected person coughs or sneezes, or when a person touches a surface with these droplets and then touches their eyes, nose, or mouth. Common symptoms in a person with the novel coronavirus infection include fever, dry cough and shortness of breath or difficulty breathing.

 

“Persons living with controlled HIV (i.e. normal CD4 count and undetectable viral load) do not appear to be at greater risk than the general public for either acquiring or becoming ill with the coronavirus.

 

“Persons living with HIV, however, may be at increased risk for an adverse response to the infection if they have: Low CD4 cell counts, particularly under 350 cells/ml (considered not virally suppressed and therefore at higher risk); 60 years of age and older; heart, lung, or kidney disease; other poorly managed health conditions, including hypertension and diabetes.

 

“Public Health recommends that individuals at higher risk for serious illness associated with COVID-19 take the following actions and precautions: Practice regular hand washing (20 seconds with soap and hot water);

 

“Cover your cough or sneeze with a tissue, then throw the tissue in the trash and wash your hands. If you do not have a tissue, cough or sneeze into your elbow; Have a 30-day supply of all medications; Remain fully adherent to all regularly prescribed medications; Make sure all your vaccinations are current, including against influenza (“flu”) and pneumonia;

 

“Practice social distancing (this means limiting the time you spend in public and keeping a 6-foot distance between yourself and strangers when you are in public); Stay home if you are even mildly sick; Call your health care provider before seeking medical care so that appropriate precautions can be taken.”

King is pointed and non-judgmental in his Facebook video. “As we engage in sex, I want you to consider the choices and the decisions you’re making as mature adults and to be as responsible and to make sober, conscious decisions. We got this,” he says.

“Many of us have lived through traumatic pandemic experiences to include the introduction of the AIDS virus to America and the Black community,” King tells the Los Angeles Blade. “We will be able to rise above the fear of the unknown relative to this new man-made viral construct we now call the coronavirus. The question remains: will we ever end the coronavirus?

“In The Meantime has cancelled its annual scholarship fundraiser, halted its mobile HIV testing efforts, and we are implementing an amplified sanitation protocol at our facility,” he says. “We will continue to show up for our clients hosting smaller groups implementing social distancing.”

But the too-familiar refrain remains: what’s happening? What’s true? What are the facts? Who can we trust as we bounce between one conspiracy theory and another?

California’s LGBTQ community leaders are striving to be of service and trusted elected leaders are diligently upholding their oath.

Criminal defense attorney and West Hollywood City Councilmember John Duran, for instance, has been posting daily briefings on his Facebook page.

Map via the LA Times coronavirus tracker

After LA County released new data showing demographics and location for coronavirus cases, on March 21, Duran posted his assessment, which reads, in part:

LA County cases: 292 (up from 231)
LA County deaths: 2 (up from 1)

Demographics to date:
Children – 4 cases
Ages 18-40 – 72 cases
Ages 41-65 – 82 cases
Over age 65 – 34

West Hollywood cases – 15
Brentwood cases – 16
Long Beach – 12
Melrose district – 11
Encino – 8
Hollywood – 7
Sherman Oaks – 6
Pacific Palisades – 6
Beverly Hills – 5
Manhattan Beach – 5

 

Those are the top numbers in LA County. WHAT? HOW IS THAT POSSIBLE? HOW CAN IT BE THAT THESE COMMUNITIES HAVE MORE REPORTABLE CASES THAN THE OTHER DENSE PARTS OF THE COUNTY LIKE DOWNTOWN, KOREATOWN, HUNTINGTON PARK?

 

First – the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health is saying – it doesn’t matter. There are no “safer” or “more dangerous” parts of the community.

 

But remember – these stats are cases reported today – but likely infected one or two weeks ago. And remember that anyone infected today – won’t be reported until one or two weeks from now.

 

OR NOT TESTED AND REPORTED AT ALL. NOT REPORTED AT ALL.

 

LA County is now advising doctors to give up on TESTING patients in the hope of containing the virus. Doctors are being told to only test patients if a positive result could change how they would be treated.

 

The numbers showing the communities with the highest number of reported cases are places where people have a bit more income, a bit more education and a bit more aggression (?). Look at that list once again. Those are places where individuals and communities tend to have the resources and the aggression to get results.

 

And they did.

 

Look at the age demographics also. The highest number are neither the very young or the very old. They are the age ranges where people would tend to be working and have access to health care and testing. There are many different lenses to look at data and think about it.

 

BUT IT DOES RAISE THE QUESTION – SHOULD WE BE THINKING ABOUT THIS AT ALL RIGHT NOW? I say no.

 

Remember how during the discussions about earthquakes we were warned that for the first three days after the cataclysm – you were on your own while government was gearing up with a response. You had to be self reliant and self sustaining.

 

Well – this cataclysm – is still shaking. It hasn’t stopped yet. We are on the front end of the cataclysm not the aftershocks. When the big quakes hit – how many of us are thinking at that moment – but what about my rent? My job? My future? NOPE. The only question in that moment is AM I GOING TO SURVIVE THIS?

 

That’s where we are. In the midst of the shaking.

 

There will be a time in a couple of weeks (hopefully when the shaking has stopped) to worry about the rebuild and cleaning up the mess. THAT IS NOT NOW.

 

NOW – is about isolating and minimizing social contacts until the Shadow passes. That is all for now. We will have lots of work to do on the other side of the initial hit. And we will work together on that when the time is here….

 

80% of those of us who get exposed to COVID 19 will experience mild to moderate symptoms. It will infect and pass through us and our bodies will create antibodies.

Pray and focus on the other 20% who may need ventilators, hospital beds and treatment. And the possibly 2-3% who may die.

 

But in the meantime, try to stay in the group called DIDN’T get exposed to COVID 19 in this first wave of cataclysm because I isolated, washed my hands and kept social distancing. I know it’s only the first week of interruption and already we are all feeling restless. But remember –

WE ARE STILL IN THE SHAKING. BRACE YOURSELF. DUCK AND COVER. AND WAIT FOR THE SHAKING TO STOP.

 

The clean up and rebuild will be for another day and time.

 

Onward! Until the next indicated step…..”

In her weekly newsletter, LA County Supervisor Sheila Kuehl explained why the county took such a difficult decision to issue the “Safer At Home” Order, along with the City of LA and she offered some advice:

“There are a number of creative ways to cope and they are important for our health and sanity:  have an indoor scavenger hunt, work out by watching your gym or others on tv, read one of those many books you bought and put aside, walk around the block (keeping six feet away from everyone—just smile and give virtual hugs and high fives), call someone you haven’t talked to in a while (the former President of the CA Senate, John Burton, who was my seatmate in the Senate, called me out of the blue last night just to talk), dig up that old Monopoly set and buy Park Avenue, and, of course, keep informed.

 

For lots of up-to-date, accurate information about COVID-19 in LA County, regularly visit lacounty.gov/covid19.

 

Thank you all for everything you’re doing, and you can bet I will continue to send updates as they come in.

 

Together, we can get through this by doing our part to “flatten the curve”.

 

As Hill Street Blues Sgt. Esterhaus used to say, “Hey, let’s be safe out there!””

And, as Gov. Newsom tweets:

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AIDS and HIV

Gilead Sciences awards grants to HIV/AIDS groups in Caribbean, Latin America

Stigma, criminalization laws among barriers to fighting pandemic in region

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Free condoms in a São Paulo Metro station. Gilead Sciences has announced it has given grants to 35 organizations in Latin America and the Caribbean. The groups will use the funds to fight HIV/AIDS in the region. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

FOSTER CITY, Calif. — Gilead Sciences this week announced it has given $4 million in grants to 35 organizations in Latin America and the Caribbean that fight HIV/AIDS.

A press release notes Asociación Panamericana de Mercadeo Social (Pan-American Association of Social Marketing) in Nicaragua, Fundación Genesis (Genesis Foundation) in Panama, Fundación por una Sociedad Empoderada (Foundation for an Empowered Society) in Argentina, Associação Nacional de Travestis e Transexuais (National Association of Travestis and Transsexuals) in Brazil and Caribbean Vulnerable Communities are among the groups that received grants. Gilead notes this funding through its Zeroing In: Ending the HIV Epidemic in Latin America and the Caribbean will “improve access to care, increase health equity and reduce HIV-related stigma for populations most affected by HIV.”

“The HIV prevention and care needs of people throughout Latin America and the Caribbean are incredibly diverse, and each of these programs addresses a unique community challenge,” said Gilead Vice President of Corporate Giving Carmen Villar. “Our grantees are deeply embedded in their communities and best positioned to provide needed HIV care and support services.” 

“Their expertise will be essential to achieve the Zeroing In program’s goals of improving access to comprehensive care among priority populations, decreasing HIV-related stigma and reducing HIV and broader health inequities,” she added.

The pandemic disproportionately affects Transgender people and sex workers, among other groups, in the region. Activists and HIV/AIDS service providers in the region with whom the Washington Blade has previously spoken say discrimination, stigma, poverty, a lack of access to health care and criminalization laws are among the myriad challenges they face.

First Lady Jill Biden in 2022 during a trip to Panama announced the U.S. will provide an additional $80.9 million in the fight against HIV/AIDS in Latin America through the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief. 

Cuba in 2015 became the first country in the world to eliminate mother-to-child transmission of HIV. The Cuban government until 1993 forcibly quarantined people with HIV/AIDS in state-run sanitaria.

Antigua and Barbuda, St. Kitts and Nevis, Barbados and Trinidad and Tobago in recent years have decriminalized consensual same-sex sexual relations. 

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in 2021 ruled Jamaica must repeal its colonial-era sodomy law. The country’s Supreme Court last year ruled against a gay man who challenged it.  

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AIDS and HIV

Local, national events to mark 35th annual World AIDS Day

HIV disproportionately affects certain populations. Men who have sex with men accounted for 70% of 32,100 estimated new HIV infections

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(Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

WASHINGTON – UNAIDS dubbed this year’s World AIDS Day theme as “Let Communities Lead.” This is how conversations around HIV and AIDS should be structured, Duante’ Brown said, who manages two programs at NMAC — a nonprofit dedicated to working to end the AIDS epidemic. People living with HIV need to be considered the subject matter experts, he said. 

“Bringing those people into the room, showing them that they have a voice and that there’s not just this group of people who are making a decision for them … is definitely the way that you go about this.”

Brown manages the ESCALATE program at NMAC, which aims to empower people to address HIV stigma, and the ELEVATE program, which is a training program for people with HIV to be more involved in the planning and delivery of the Ryan White HIV/AIDS Program, which is the largest federal program designed specifically for people with HIV. 

In the United States, it’s estimated 1.2 million people are living with HIV, according to HIV.gov. About 13% are unaware they have HIV.

HIV also continues to disproportionately affect certain populations. Men who have sex with men accounted for 70% of the 32,100 estimated new HIV infections in 2021. And Black individuals accounted for 40% of the new infections that year, while only comprising 12% of the population of the United States, according to the CDC

In 2023, stigma is a key inhibitor to ending the epidemic, Brown said. When stigma gets out of the way, there could be a day when there are no new cases of HIV transmissions, he said. To get around that stigma, people need to have meaningful and productive conversations about AIDS. 

“Not treating it as taboo, making sure that we are empowering people living with HIV and AIDS to tell their stories and to be empowered to feel that it’s OK,” Brown said. “And that nothing is wrong with you.”

And there are events in the locally and nationally to recognize World AIDS Day, many of them aimed at abolishing the stigma that comes with talking about HIV.

Icon Janet Jackson headlines the World AIDS Day Concert on Dec. 1 in Houston.

At a national level, Janet Jackson is set to headline the World AIDS Day concert on Dec. 1 — an annual fundraiser sponsored by the AIDS Healthcare Foundation. The concert will be at the NRG Arena in Houston, and will also honor actor and activist Blair Underwood with its lifetime achievement award. 

“[The concert] really is a way to commemorate World AIDS Day in a way that is both remembrance of those that we’ve lost, recognizing where we’re at, but also really celebrating and connecting the work that’s yet to be done. And having folks still leaving uplifted and elevated about what the future could hold,” said Imara Canady, AHF’s national director for communications and community engagement. 

Jackson has long been an outspoken advocate for people living with HIV. Her song, “Together Again,” is a tribute to a friend she lost to AIDS, as well as a dedication to patients around the world. 

The AIDS Healthcare Foundation, the largest nonprofit HIV/AIDS service organization and advocacy group, has several health care centers in the region and many across the nation and world. AHF also has a free HIV test locater online at freehivtest.net

AIDSWatch, the electronic memorial to people lost to HIV and AIDS, will be viewable on www.AIDSWatch.org and on the City of West Hollywood’s WeHoTV broadcast and streaming channels, including Spectrum Channel 10 within West Hollywood, beginning at 12:01 a.m. on Thursday, Dec. 1, for 24 hours.

The City of West Hollywood will join STORIES: The AIDS Monument and APLA Health in a World AIDS Day event on Friday, Dec. 1. The evening will begin at 5:30 p.m. with a reception at the West Hollywood Park Aquatic and Recreation Center (ARC) Respite Deck, located at 8750 El Tovar Place.

After a short program with refreshments, attendees will descend the grand staircase of the ARC at 6:30 p.m. in a candlelight procession through West Hollywood Park and along N. Robertson, Santa Monica, and N. San Vicente Boulevards to the City’s Council Chambers/Public Meeting Room, located at 625 N. San Vicente Boulevard. There, the evening will continue with a screening of the award-winning 2023 documentary “Commitment to Life.” Doors will open at 7 p.m. and the screening will begin promptly at 7:15 p.m. 

Events are free to attend and open to the public. Limited validated parking will be available at the West Hollywood Park 5-Story structure. 

Advance RSVP is requested by reserving a spot on Eventbrite.

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Maxine Waters criticizes House GOP over proposed cuts to HIV/AIDS programs

Calif. Democrat spoke at U.S. Conference on HIV/AIDS in D.C.

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U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) speaks at the U.S. Conference on HIV/AIDS on Sept. 6, 2023, in Washington. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

WASHINGTON — U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) on Wednesday sharply criticized House Republicans over their proposed cuts to HIV/AIDS prevention programs.

The California Democrat who represents the state’s 43rd Congressional District in a speech she delivered at the U.S. Conference on HIV/AIDS noted the House Appropriations Committee’s Fiscal Year 2024 Labor, Health, Human Services, Education and Related Agencies Appropriations Bill would cut $767 million from domestic HIV/AIDS programs.

Waters said the bill would cut funds to fight HIV/AIDS among underrepresented groups by 53 percent and “completely eliminates” funding for “Minority AIDS Initiative activities within the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.” Waters also noted the appropriations measure “eliminates funding” for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Ending the HIV Epidemic Initiative, the Ryan White HIV/AIDS Program and community health centers.

“The cuts to the Minority AIDS Initiative will exacerbate racial disparities and the elimination of the (Ending the) HIV Epidemic Initiative,” said Waters.

Waters also criticized House Republicans for “refusing to authorize” the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief.” The California Democrat said ending PEPFAR “would endanger the lives of millions of people around the world who are living with HIV and endanger the lives of millions more who are at risk.” 

“Moreover, it would compromise United States leadership on global health issues,” added Waters. “These programs used to have widespread support. It’s shameful that House Republicans are now trying to eliminate them. We cannot allow these cuts to pass. We cannot compromise. We will not give up.”

U.S. Reps. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) and Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) are among those who Waters criticized by name in her speech.

“I will speak truth to power. I want to use words that they will understand. Hell no! We won’t go! We are not going to give up,” said Waters. “That’s the people’s money. You can’t decide who you’re going to spend it on and not who you’re going to spend it on.”

More than 3,000 people are expected to attend the National Minority AIDS Council-organized conference that will end on Saturday. This year’s theme is “A Love Letter to Black Women.”

“We need a love letter to Black women,” said Waters. “We need it not only from this conference. We need it from our families often times. We need it from our communities. We need it from the churches that we give so much attention to and give our resources to and don’t really get it back. We need a love letter coming from all over this country for what we have suffered, for what we have endured, for the way that we have been denied and for the way that we have been ostracized.” 

Waters in her speech specifically praised former Massachusetts Congressman Barney Frank and the late U.S. Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) for their work in support of LGBTQ+ rights and efforts to combat HIV/AIDS. Waters also thanked Jewel Thais-Williams, who opened Catch One, a bar and restaurant on Pico Boulevard in Los Angeles that became a refuge for people with HIV/AIDS.

“They had nowhere to gather, nowhere to go, nowhere to be recognized as people who needed support,” said Waters.

B. Kaye Hayes, deputy assistant secretary for infectious disease in the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Health who is also the executive director of the Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS, is among those who are expected to speak at the conference. Mark S. King, an HIV/AIDS activist and blogger who published “My Fabulous Disease: Chronicles of a Gay Survivor” on Sept. 1, is scheduled to talk on Thursday.

Cal Benn contributed to this story.

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AIDS and HIV

American Red Cross ends ban on blood donations by gay men

Many healthy individuals who previously could not give will now be able to support their community through the gift of blood donation

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Photo Credit: American Red Cross

WASHINGTON – The American Red Cross announced a historic change in the organization’s policies regarding blood donations by gay and bisexual men. Under this new donor screening process, all donors answer the same eligibility questions regardless of gender or sexual orientation and will be assessed for blood donation based on individual risk factors, not on sexual orientation.

This change by the Red Cross falls within the U.S. Food and Drug Administration finalized guidelines for blood donation issued this past May that will use a uniform individualized risk assessment questionnaire for respondents regardless of their sexual orientation, sex, or gender.

In a statement the Red Cross noted:

“This change means many healthy individuals who previously could not give will now be able to support their community through the gift of blood donation.

Andrew Goldstein, a cancer researcher from Los Angeles, was a regular blood donor in his younger years before the FDA’s previous policies made him ineligible to donate as a gay man. His desire to influence change compelled him to register as a participant in the FDA funded ADVANCE Study in 2021, which sought to gather data to evaluate the possibility of moving to an individual donor assessment. He is proud he was able to be part of the study that led to this change and is excited to finally be able to give blood again.

“There’s so much in the world that you can’t help with, and you sometimes have to see people going through difficult times, but something like giving blood feels like something so small that you can do, and it means a lot to me that I’ll be able to do that again,” said Andrew. Now, Andrew and many others are able to share their good health with patients in need of lifesaving transfusions.”

The FDA’s new protocols issued in May note that prospective donors who have had a new sexual partner, or more than one sexual partner in the past three months, and anal sex in the past three months, would be ineligible.

So would those who are “taking medications to treat or prevent HIV infection (e.g., antiretroviral therapy (ART), pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) and post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP),” because these drugs can delay the detection of HIV.

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Elton John AIDS Foundation launches ambitious new initiative

Throughout Pride Month, Sir Elton John and the co-chairs of The Rocket Fund are challenging supporters to let their #InnerElton out

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Elton John & David Furnish at Oscars Viewing Party 2021 (Screenshot/YouTube Hollywood TV)

NEW YORK – The Rocket Fund is the Elton John AIDS Foundation’s latest transformative $125 million campaign to redouble the fight against AIDS everywhere. Growing levels of stigmatization, marginalization, and poverty have led to high rates of HIV and low access to healthcare globally. 

“For years, HIV/AIDS has caused enormous pain across the world, but I pray that soon this epidemic will be a thing of the past” said Sir Elton John. “More than 30 years after I launched the Elton John AIDS Foundation, my passion for reaching everyone, everywhere with education and compassionate care is still as strong as ever. The Rocket Fund will turbo-charge our mission and reach those most at risk from this terrible disease. Now is the time. This epidemic has gone on too long. We must all act together to see AIDS defeated in our lifetimes.”

Money from the fund will go towards supporting access to HIV prevention and treatment services, including providing access to HIV tests, antiretroviral therapies, and Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis (PrEP), according to the press release. Donatella Versace, one of the Rocket Fund’s co-chairs — alongside Furnish, Tani Austin, and David Geffen — has also pledged to match donations to the fund up to $300,000 during the month of June.

Throughout Pride Month, Sir Elton John and the co-chairs of The Rocket Fund are challenging supporters to let their #InnerElton out. Letting your #InnerElton out is about proudly expressing your authentic self, showing love for others and taking compassionate action. Supporters are encouraged to join the movement by posting photos of themselves on social media wearing their own take on Elton’s signature looks – or whatever makes them feel their true self – with the hashtag #InnerElton. Many notables are joining to let their #InnerElton out, including Dolly Parton, Michaela Jaé Rodriguez, JoJo Siwa, Heidi Klum, Smokey Robinson and more. Learn more here. The Let Your Inner Elton Out campaign was created by advertising agency Invisible Man and produced in partnership with global communications agency BCW.

The Foundation launched this critical initiative on June 5, the day in 1981 when the Centers for Disease Control released its first report on what would become the AIDS epidemic. This inaugural Rocket Day commemorates the early days of the fight against HIV/AIDS, while committing to accelerate progress towards ending AIDS for all.

“The end of the HIV/AIDS epidemic is within sight, and The Rocket Fund is the push we need to finally cross the horizon,” said David Furnish, Chairman of the Elton John AIDS Foundation. “To end AIDS, we must make targeted investments that can level the playing field, by tackling the inequalities and stigma that prevent people from accessing the care they desperately need. By joining The Rocket Fund and our mission, you can help transform the future for millions of people globally.”

“As we’ve learned through the global fight to stop COVID-19, epidemics do not recognize state borders, economic or cultural differences. If left unchecked, they only worsen with devastating impacts on the most vulnerable,” said Anne Aslett, Chief Executive Officer of the Elton John AIDS Foundation. “It is critical that we meet this moment to connect vulnerable people with the care and resources they need to live vibrant, healthy lives and we welcome all who want to see an end to this disease to join us.”

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New data shows HIV infections dropped- mostly among whites

Significant decline in new HIV infections, but impact of prevention efforts far less substantial for Black and Hispanic-Latino populations

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Centers for Disease Control and Prevention headquarters in Atlanta. (Photo Credit: CDC/GSA)

ATLANTA – Data published Tuesday. by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows a significant decline in new HIV infections, but suggests the impact of prevention efforts was far less substantial for Black and Latino populations.

From 2017 to 2021, as rates of HIV testing, treatment, and the use of pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) medication rose, new cases dropped by 12 percent overall and by as much as 34 percent among gay and bisexual males aged 13 to 24.

The numbers show a “move in the right direction,” CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said in a press release.

However, when broken down by race, the CDC found new infections were down by 27 percent and 36 percent, respectively, among Black and Hispanic-Latino populations, compared with 45 percent of whites.

Similarly, by 2021 about one third of those who are considered eligible were taking PrEP for HIV prevention, but the CDC noted this number includes “relatively few Black people or Hispanic/Latino people” despite the significant increase in prescriptions up from just 13 percent in 2017.

“Longstanding factors, such as systemic inequities, social and economic marginalization and residential segregation,” Walensky noted, continue to act as barriers “between highly effective HIV treatment and prevention and people who could benefit from them.”

She added, “Efforts must be accelerated and strengthened for progress to reach all groups faster and equitably.”

Robyn Neblett Fanfair, acting director of the CDC’s Division of HIV Prevention, said that “At least three people in the U.S. get HIV every hour—at a time when we have more effective prevention and treatment options than ever before.”

“These tools must reach deep into communities and be delivered faster to expand progress from some groups to all groups,” she said.

The HIV+Hepatitis Policy Institute issued a press release following the CDC’s announcement of the new data, noting both the encouraging progress and need for improvement.

“It appears that our investments in HIV prevention are providing some positive results, but the persistent high number of new diagnoses and the low usage of PrEP among the communities most impacted by HIV point to the need for increased resources, particularly for a national PrEP program,” said the group’s executive director, Carl Schmid.

President Joe Biden’s FY24 budget requested $237 million for a national PrEP program along with $850 million to support the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ “Ending the HIV Epidemic in the U.S.” initiative.

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President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief marks year 20

Achievements PEPFAR have been remarkable, well-documented by outside evaluators, and hugely applauded throughout the advocacy community

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President George W. Bush signing PEPFAR’s authorizing legislation January 28, 2003. (Photo Credit: George W. Bush Presidential Center)

WASHINGTON – The President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) marks its twenty year anniversary today, marking the largest commitment by any nation to address a single disease in the world.

The initiative which was personally led and launched by former President George W. Bush in 2003,  its funding has totaled more than $110 billion to date, including funding for the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria (Global Fund), to which the U.S. government is the largest donor.

PEPFAR is credited with saving millions of lives and helping to change the trajectory of the global HIV epidemic.  The White House today released a statement by President Joe Biden marking the 20th Anniversary:

Twenty years ago today, President George W. Bush declared that preventing and treating HIV/AIDS was a foreign policy priority of the United States. At a time when nearly 30 million people were HIV positive, but very few were receiving life-saving medicines, the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) transformed the global AIDS response and laid a marker for America’s commitment to countries that were impacted the hardest by the AIDS epidemic. Helping lead the bipartisan effort in Congress to authorize PEPFAR is among my proudest achievements from my time in the Senate. To this day, PEPFAR remains a powerful example of America’s unmatched ability to drive progress and make life better for people around the world.
 
Since 2003, PEPFAR has saved more than 25 million lives and dramatically improved health outcomes in more than 55 partner countries. AIDS-related deaths have declined by 68 percent since their peak in 2004, and new HIV infections are down 42 percent. PEPFAR investments have ensured that 5.5 million babies have been born HIV-free. And two decades of investment in partner nations’ health systems played a critical role in countries’ ability to respond to other health crises such as COVID-19, Mpox, and Ebola.    
 
Today, PEPFAR continues to support 20.1 million people around the world with HIV/AIDS treatment, and my Administration is committed to continuing to lead the global HIV/AIDS response. We will build on our decades of progress to reach the Sustainable Development Goal of ending AIDS by 2030, work to eliminate the stigma and inequities that keep people from accessing care, and keep the voices of people living with HIV/AIDS at the center of our response.  I look forward to working with Congress on PEPFAR’s reauthorization this year.

PEPFAR is overseen by the U.S. Global AIDS Coordinator, who is appointed by the President, confirmed by the Senate, and reports directly to the Secretary of State, as established through PEPFAR’s authorizing legislation.

PEPFAR’s original authorization established new structures and authorities, consolidating all U.S. bilateral and multilateral activities and funding for global HIV/AIDS. Several U.S. agencies, host country governments, and other organizations are involved in implementation.

Dr. John Nkengasong, the current coordinator was sworn in on June 13, 2022, and holds the rank of Ambassador leading the Office of the Global AIDS Coordinator (OGAC) at the U.S. Department of State.

Nobel Prize winning scientist Harold Varmus, who served as Director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) from 1993 to 1999 and currently the Lewis Thomas University Professor of Medicine at Weill Cornell Medicine in New York City, wrote in an article honoring World Aids Day 2013:

[…] “the PEPFAR story must begin with George W. Bush and his wife, Laura, and their interests in AIDS, Africa, and what Bush termed “compassionate conservatism.” According to his 2010 memoir, Decision Points, the two of them developed a serious interest in improving the fate of the people of Africa after reading Alex Haley’s Roots and visiting The Gambia in 1990.3 In 1998, while pondering a run for the U.S. presidency, he discussed Africa with Condoleezza Rice, his future secretary of state; she said that, if elected, working more closely with countries on that continent should be a significant part of his foreign policy. She also told him that HIV/AIDS was a central problem in Africa but that the United States was spending only $500 million per year on global AIDS, with the money spread across six federal agencies, without a clear strategy for curbing the epidemic.”

Key Facts (As provided by Kaiser Health & Family Foundation)

  • Although the U.S. has been involved in efforts to address the global AIDS crisis since the mid-1980s, the creation of the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) in 2003 marked a significant increase in funding and attention to the epidemic.
  • PEPFAR is the largest commitment by any nation to address a single disease in the world; to date, its funding has totaled more than $110 billion, including funding for the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria (Global Fund), to which the U.S. government is the largest donor. PEPFAR is credited with saving millions of lives and helping to change the trajectory of the global HIV epidemic.
  • U.S. funding for PEPFAR grew from $2.2 billion in FY 2004 to $7.0 billion in FY 2022; FY 2022 funding includes $5.4 billion provided for bilateral HIV efforts and $1.6 billion for multilateral efforts ($50 million for UNAIDS and $1.56 billion for the Global Fund).
  • As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to have profound effects across the world, PEPFAR has acted to respond to COVID-19 in countries that receive support in order to minimize HIV service disruptions and leverage the program’s capabilities to address COVID-19 more broadly.
  • Looking ahead, PEPFAR faces several issues and challenges, including how best to: address the short- and long-term impacts of COVID-19 on PEPFAR and the HIV response; accelerate progress toward epidemic control in the context of flat funding; support and strengthen community-led responses and the sustainability of HIV programs; define its role in global health security and broader health systems strengthening efforts; and continue to coordinate with other key players in the HIV ecosystem, including the Global Fund.

Key Activities and Results (As provided by Kaiser Health & Family Foundation)

PEPFAR activities focus on expanding access to HIV prevention, treatment, and care interventions. These include provision of antiretroviral treatment, pre-exposure prophylaxis, voluntary male circumcision, condoms, and other commodities related to HIV services. In addition, PEPFAR has launched specific initiatives in key strategic areas. For example, in 2015, PEPFAR launched DREAMS, a public-private partnership that aims to reduce HIV infections in adolescent girls and young women.

The latest results reported by PEPFAR indicate that it has:

  • supported testing services for 63.4 million people in FY 2021;
  • prevented 2.8 million babies from being born with HIV, who would have otherwise been infected;
  • provided care for more than 7.1 million orphans and vulnerable children (OVC);
  • supported training for nearly 300,000 new health care workers; and
  • supported antiretroviral treatment for 18.96 million people.
  • In the 15 countries implementing the DREAMS initiative, new diagnoses among adolescent girls and young women have declined with most DREAMS areas (96%) experiencing declines greater than 25% and nearly two-thirds with declines greater than 40%.

The achievements of the PEPFAR program have been remarkable, well-documented by outside evaluators, and hugely applauded throughout the advocacy community and the developing world. In general, milestones have been met, the program has been enlarged (for instance, to include some research on implementation of medical assistance), the roster of PEPFAR countries has grown and spending plans have not been exceeded.

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FDA eases blood donation restrictions for gay & bisexual men

The FDA’s proposal would lift the mandatory three-month deferral period for some men who have sex with men

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FDA headquarters (Photo Credit: U.S. Government/GSA)

SILVER SPRING, Md. – The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) introduced a proposed change to its blood donation guidelines on Friday that would ease restrictions for gay and bisexual men.

The FDA notes the proposal, news of which was first reported in November, would bring U.S. policies in alignment with those in place in countries like the U.K. and Canada. The agency is expected to formally adopt the new guidelines after a public comment period.

The move follows criticism from LGBTQ groups and organizations like the American Medical Association (AMA) who have long argued the current policy is homophobic and based on an outdated understanding of the risks associated with blood donation by men who have sex with men.

As the AMA wrote of the current policy: “a man who has protected sex with another man in the three months prior to a blood donation cannot be a donor, but a man or woman who has unprotected sex with multiple partners of the opposite sex over the same time period remains eligible.”

The FDA’s proposal would lift the mandatory three-month deferral period for some men who have sex with men and instead use a “gender-inclusive, individual risk-based questions relevant to HIV risk.”

Potential donors would be asked for information about their sexual history over the past three months. Respondents who indicate they have had sex with one or more new sexual partners would then be asked whether they have had anal sex during this period. Those who answer “yes” would be deferred from blood donation.

Axios noted that as of this morning, about 20 percent of the country’s community blood centers have a one-day supply or less, while the FDA’s broadened eligibility criteria would increase the annual blood supply by two to four percent, citing data from America’s Blood Centers’ daily tracker and the Williams Institute.

U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) issued a statement celebrating the FDA’s proposal. “As I have long advocated for, this blood donation policy takes a step forward and is better rooted in the most up-to-date science with a focus on individual risk factors, not outdated stigmas that effectively ban gay and bisexual men,” she said.

Baldwin has repeatedly urged the agency to revisit its blood donation policy over the years, including by corralling support from other members of Congress to cosign letters to the FDA in 2014 and 2016, raising the issue again in 2020 as the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated shortages in the blood supply.

The Congressional LGBTQ+ Equality Caucus also acknowledged the move in a statement by its chair, Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.): “I am glad the FDA is finally moving toward an individual risk-based assessment model, but recognize, based on existing reporting, that many LGBTQI+ people may still be barred from donating,” he said. “I look forward to taking a closer look at the proposed guidelines once they are published and working with the FDA to ensure that any unnecessary barriers are removed.”

Several LGBTQ groups also issued statements celebrating the FDA’s new guidance.

“These changes are 40-plus years in the making, and are a tremendous leap forward toward elevating science over stigma,” said GLAAD President Sarah Kate Ellis. “GLAAD and leading medical experts have long been advocating for guidelines that see and treat LGBTQ people the same as any other person, including as potential donors who want to help others.”

“This new policy removes a decades-long barrier for many in our community – and there is more to do to ensure gay, bisexual and transgender people are no longer unfairly stigmatized when they try to donate blood,” Human Rights Campaign President Kelley Robinson said. “The assessment criteria have flaws, focusing excessively, for instance, on the number of partners a potential donor has instead of just on new partners,” she added.

Carl Schmid, executive director of the HIV+ Hepatitis Policy Institute, said: “While this long-overdue change is being made based on the science and the facts, which have been clear for years, it is the result of the leadership of the Biden administration that continues to tear down discriminatory government policies.”

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Experimental HIV vaccine failure, deemed safe but ineffective

“We remain steadfast in our commitment to advancing innovation in HIV & hope the data from Mosaico will provide insights for future efforts”

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HIV (Photo Credit: National Institutes of Health)

BETHESDA, Md. – A clinical trial of an investigational HIV vaccine regimen, being conducted in partnership with the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) by Janssen Pharmaceutical Companies and global partners of parent company Johnson & Johnson dubbed “Mosaico,” was discontinued.

In an announcement made Wednesday, NIAID said the HIV vaccine regimen tested among men who have sex with men (MSM) and transgender people was safe but did not provide protection against HIV acquisition, an independent data and safety monitoring board had determined.

A spokesperson for Johnson & Johnson noted in light of the board’s determination, the Mosaico clinical trial will be discontinued. Participant notifications and further analyses of the data are underway. Throughout the trial, study investigators have ensured that any individuals who contracted HIV received prompt HIV treatment and care.

Both Johnson & Johnson and NIAID stressed that no safety issues with the vaccine regimen were identified.

“We are disappointed with this outcome and stand in solidarity with the people and communities vulnerable to and affected by HIV,” said Penny Heaton, M.D., Global Therapeutic Area Head, Vaccines, Janssen Research & Development, LLC. “Though there have been significant advances in prevention since the beginning of the global epidemic, 1.5 million people acquired HIV in 2021 alone, underscoring the high unmet need for new options and why we have long worked to tackle this global health challenge. We remain steadfast in our commitment to advancing innovation in HIV, and we hope the data from Mosaico will provide insights for future efforts to develop a safe and effective vaccine. We are grateful to our Mosaico partners and the study investigators, staff and participants.”

Janssen Vaccines & Prevention sponsored the Mosaico study with funding support from NIAID, part of the National Institutes of Health. The trial was conducted by the NIAID-funded HIV Vaccine Clinical Trials Network, based at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle. The U.S. Army Medical Research and Development Command provided additional study support.

The Phase 3 Mosaico Study:

Mosaico, a Phase 3 study of Janssen’s investigational HIV vaccine regimen, began in 2019, and completed vaccinations in October 2022. The study included approximately 3,900 cisgender men and transgender people who have sex with cisgender men and/or transgender people, who represent groups and populations vulnerable to HIV, at over 50 trial sites in Argentina, Brazil, Italy, Mexico, Peru, Poland, Puerto Rico, Spain and the United States.

The study evaluated an investigational vaccine regimen containing a mosaic-based adenovirus serotype 26 vector (Ad26.Mos4.HIV) administered during four vaccination visits over one year. A mix of soluble proteins (Clade C/Mosaic gp140, adjuvanted with aluminum phosphate) was also administered at visits three and four.

The Mosaico DSMB analysis, based on the data available to date, indicated that the regimen does not protect against HIV and the study is not expected to meet its primary endpoint. No safety issues with the vaccine regimen were identified. In light of this, the study will be discontinued, and further analyses are underway.

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Patti LaBelle, Gladys Knight dazzle World AIDS Day concert 

“As millions remain affected by HIV/AIDS, World AIDS Day provides an opportunity to honor those we’ve lost and those living with HIV/AIDS”

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Patti LaBelle performs onstage during World AIDS Day 2022 at John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts on November 30, 2022 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Paul Morigi/Getty Images for AIDS Healthcare Foundation)

WASHINGTON – The AIDS Healthcare Foundation (AHF) hosted its 2022 World AIDS Day Concert on Wednesday, Nov. 30, in the concert hall of The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in the nation’s capital.

Renowned multi-Grammy Award-winning vocalists Patti LaBelle and Gladys Knight delivered show-stopping performances to the packed crowd, which included supporters, dignitaries such as: Harold Phillips, Director of the White House Office of National AIDS Policy; White House Senior Advisor for Public Engagement, Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee, and New Orleans Mayor, Mayor LaToya Cantrell, and more, in a night of hope and celebration.

The legendary Gladys Knight performs at the Kennedy Center during a free concert hosted by AHF to commemorate World AIDS Day on December 1, 2022, in Washington.
(Joy Asico/AP Images for AIDS Healthcare Foundation)

AIDS Healthcare Foundation (AHF), is the world’s largest HIV/AIDS care provider, currently operating in 45 countries. The concert is held every year to commemorate World AIDS Day, observed internationally each year on Dec. 1. This year also marked the global organization’s 35th anniversary. 

At the event, longtime humanitarian and AIDS advocate, Princess Diana was honored, posthumously, with AHF’s Lifetime Achievement Award. Under its “Keep the Promise!” banner, AHF also acknowledged progress made in the global fight against HIV and AIDS and continues to raise awareness about “The Other Pandemic” as a reminder of the significant work still to be done on HIV/AIDS, as well as remembering the lives that have been lost over the years.  

Legendary entertainers Patti LaBelle (L) Gladys Knight (C) and AHF President Michael Weinstein, together at The Kennedy Center during a free concert hosted by AHF to commemorate World AIDS Day on December 1, 2022, in Washington.
(Joy Asico/AP Images for AIDS Healthcare Foundation)

Michael Weinstein, President of AHF, said, “As millions remain affected by HIV/AIDS around the globe, World AIDS Day annually provides an opportunity to honor those we’ve lost and those living with HIV/AIDS today, as well as reminding leaders and the community of the work that still remains to address this epidemic. From providing compassionate AIDS hospice care in those darkest early days to growing to become the largest global AIDS organization today, now providing lifesaving care and treatment to more than 1.7 million people around the globe, we also celebrate the tireless work of all those who help make today’s AHF possible: our staff, Board, affiliate organizations and affinity groups, friends, family and elected officials and community partners across the globe, but most of all, our clients and patients—with our annual 2022 World AIDS Day event. It was a momentous night to host our World AIDS Day concert at The Kennedy Center for the first time, and welcome back the legendary Patti LaBelle, and have another great American icon, Gladys Knight join us, while also being able to honor the legacy and humanitarian work of the late Princess Diana.”

President of AIDS Healthcare Foundation, Michael Weinstein and Director of the White House Office of National AIDS Policy, Harold Phillips attend World AIDS Day 2022 at John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts on November 30, 2022 in Washington, DC.
(Photo by Paul Morigi/Getty Images for AIDS Healthcare Foundation)
Congresswoman, Sheila Jackson Lee and Patti LaBelle attend World AIDS Day 2022 at John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts on November 30, 2022 in Washington, DC.
(Photo by Paul Morigi/Getty Images for AIDS Healthcare Foundation)
Derek J. attends World AIDS Day 2022 at John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts on November 30, 2022 in Washington, DC.
(Photo by Paul Morigi/Getty Images for AIDS Healthcare Foundation)
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