The risk of people with HIV who are receiving standard of care treatment to control their HIV is not significantly greater than the general public for contracting or becoming seriously ill from the Coronavirus, according to the Chief Medical Officer at D.C.’s Whitman-Walker Health.
Dr. Sarah Henn told the Washington Blade on Friday that reports coming from China and other parts of the U.S. where the Coronavirus outbreak has begun to take hold show those at highest risk for illness from the virus are people with other chronic illnesses and elderly people, many of whom have an underlying medical condition.
“So when I think of people who are at increased risk or high risk for Coronavirus I think of people who are significantly immunosuppressed,” Henn said. “I think of people who are going through cancer chemotherapy, people who are immunosuppressed with medications with a history of organ transplants, and people with a very low CD4 count and uncontrolled HIV and AIDS.”
By a low CD4 count Henn was referring to the number of cells in the body that fight infection and that are suppressed by HIV but that can be restored by antiretroviral drugs available to people with HIV. When used properly, the antiretroviral drugs bring HIV to an undetectable level.
“So I think for someone who has a relatively normal CD4 count but is HIV positive and their HIV is well-controlled and their viral load is undetectable, I don’t foresee them as being at significantly greater risk for Coronavirus,” Henn said. “For those people there may be a very slight increased risk, but I would expect it to be very slight.”
But Henn added, “One thing we should think about is more than 1/2 of our patients living with HIV in the District are over the age of 50. So that in and of itself puts them at increased risk.”
Henn noted that information coming in from China, where the Coronavirus outbreak first began, shows that “older individuals tend to experience more severe or are more likely to experience more severe illness” from the Coronavirus outbreak.
Henn spoke to the Blade less than a week after Whitman-Walker posted information on its website reiterating advice for avoiding Coronavirus infection released by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the city’s Department of Health.
Among the steps all people should take, Whitman-Walker recommends, is to wash hands often to avoid getting sick from many types of germs, including the flu; clean and disinfect frequently touched surfaces and objects like cell phones, doorknobs, and workspaces using disinfectant wipes or sprays; stay home if you are coughing and or sneezing; and use a tissue to cover coughs and sneezes and quickly throw the used tissue in the trash.
According to Henn, for healthy people, wearing a mask is not likely to make much of a difference in protecting them from the virus.
“It’s less likely there is something in the air you’re going to breathe in,” she said. “It’s much more likely it’s something you’re going to touch and then touch your own face and mouth.”
D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser gave similar advice at a news conference she called Saturday night, March 7, to give an update on what she said were two known cases of people testing positive for Coronavirus in D.C.
As of Sunday night, March 8, the number of known Coronavirus cases in the D.C. Metro Area reached nine.
“As you know, over a week ago I signed a mayor’s order that directed funding and personnel to monitor, prepare for and now to respond to the Coronavirus,” Bowser told the news conference. “Our message to D.C. residents continues to be, help us prevent the spread of germs and stay informed,” she said, urging residents and visitors to keep up to date by viewing a special city website, coronavirus.dc.gov.
The Washington Post reported that one of the two people in D.C. who tested positive is the Rev. Timothy Cole, pastor of Christ Church of Georgetown, which canceled its services on Sunday in what church officials said was an overabundance of caution. A church spokesperson said Cole presided over church services the previous Sunday on March 1 before having any symptoms.
Bowser said the second person developed symptoms of Coronavirus while visiting D.C. before going to a hospital in Maryland for treatment. She said he was still in the hospital in Maryland as of Saturday night.
The mayor said the second person, referred to as Patient 2, stayed in D.C. for one night after he arrived in the U.S. from Nigeria.
In a related development, D.C. public school officials announced on Sunday that a public high school in Foggy Bottom called School Without Walls High School would be closed on Monday after it was learned that a staff member at the school came into contact with someone who tested positive for the Coronavirus. In a statement released Monday morning, the mayor’s office said the person the school employee came in contact with was Patient 2, the person who arrived in D.C. a few days earlier from Nigeria.
School officials said the staff member had no symptoms and tested negative for the virus, the statement from the mayor’s office reported. The statement says that D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Lewis D. Ferebee said officials closed the school “in an abundance of caution” so it could be thoroughly cleaned and other staff and students’ families could be notified.
City health officials at the mayor’s news conference on Saturday said they expected more cases would surface in D.C. but the overall risk for a major city outbreak appears low at this time.
Gay nightlife and business advocate Mark Lee, who serves as coordinator of the D.C. Nightlife Council, a private group that represents hospitality industry businesses such as nightclubs, bars and restaurants, said he’s confident the Coronavirus risk remains low citywide.
“Hospitality and nightlife establishments are regularly focused on staff hygiene, employee health, cleaning of surfaces, food and drink safety, and guest wellbeing in order to continuously comply with strict health guidelines and operating regulations,” Lee told the Blade, “and businesses are currently redoubling this standard of best practices already in effect to ensure safe public environments and healthy workplaces.”
“Venue staff members ask only that customers do what they do – stay home if you’re feeling ill, take the same steps you would to avoid getting the flu, and follow the recommended personal hygiene prevention activities,” Lee told the Blade. “Most of all, use common sense and monitor city announcements on developments but don’t overreact with unwarranted fear.”
Further information on Coronavirus provided by Whitman-Walker can be obtained here: Whitman-walker.org/coronavirus.
This article originally appeared in the Washington Blade and is made available in partnership with the National LGBT Media Association.