As governors across the U.S. extend stay-at-home orders, millions of Americans are becoming accustomed to a temporarily altered, home-bound way of life. But for HIV-positive people, those concerns are compounded due to their immunocompromised status. Currently, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report no specific link to COVID-19 and HIV, but they do make note that HIV-infected people, particularly those with underlying conditions, could have a higher chance of contracting the disease. Unified HIV Health and Beyond is an organization that works to aid HIV-positive clients through case management, testing, support groups and more across Michigan. Kevin Howley, its interim executive director, said that in addition to Unified's existing clients relying on services more than before, the organization is experiencing spikes in need not seen before the pandemic.
"Before, if you've just tested HIV-positive, you don't have to worry about infecting anybody else or being infected. You still have a compromised immune system and you're careful, but the risks are totally different. Now, it's dramatically different for our current client base. And that kind of rolls into the fact that now we actually have more people coming into our system that weren't really clients per se," Howley said.
Howley said that many of the people who were able to "handle things on their own" or who lived with only occasional service needs have now begun to enter the system as registered clients.
"It's interesting, just with the client base we already had before the crisis started, there's so much that they depend upon us for help with in terms of getting access to bus passes, dealing with landlord issues, dealing with their health insurance challenges," he said. " And whether it be access to health insurance or sorting through the maze of services that are available … all that's really been heightened now. … Their ability to get out and do some of these tasks becomes even more limited because they have this added risk."
Howley said that other "added pressures" on Unified right now are early prison releases due to the pandemic.
"Regularly, we have a reentry service, because many people leave the prison system and they are HIV-positive. So they go from a prison system that provides them with all their cares and needs, to a system where, all of a sudden, they're left on the street with no insurance, no access to services. So, as that population comes out of the prison system, they're entering them as clients of our programming," Howley said. "Right now we're handling it, but in terms of evaluating the impact of what's going on, it's putting that pressure on our staff to try and meet the needs as quickly as possible."
Still, despite the pull on Unified's existing resources and staff, Howley is choosing to view the influx of newly registered clients as a good thing.
"We want them to be a part of our network," he said. "These clients that we're working with, their anxiety levels have gone from zero to 10, and we want them to know that we're here for them. It's great for their own personal and mental health, but also their physical health, and generally for the community to know that Unified is out there supporting [them]."
Community Within Crisis
One of Unified's most popular services for clients is The Conover Food Pantry at its Ypsilanti location. Here, active clients can pick up an array of canned, frozen and dried food products along with personal hygiene supplies. However, because of the pandemic, the Pantry's regular hours have been significantly altered. Howley said that the Unified staff is developing workarounds to aid the clients who are most in need by delivering staples to their doors via care packages.
Caitlyn Clock is a Tobacco Treatment Specialist who works out of Unified's Ypsilanti office. She said that personalized services like the packages and reaching out to clients directly has been working well to foster a sense of comfort and community.
"[For one specific client,] I've been working with them for a few months now and … we were working on this plan, they were in the middle of a quit attempt and, all of a sudden, they get slammed with [the stress of the pandemic]. And while it's become a motivator for them, it's also really scary. It can cause increased emotional triggers like stress, depression and anxiety, and all of those kinds of things could really contribute to them wanting to smoke again," Clock said. "I think that them really feeling that continued support from me and from places like case management has really helped them navigate this and feel like they're not alone in this."
When asked if Unified is unveiling more social distancing-specific programming to combat isolation from services during the pandemic, Clock said that she's excited about a telehealth program that's "kicking off right now."
"We also have another TTS in Detroit, her name is Amber, and she and I have been collaborating with marketing person to try and figure out other ways we can reach out to clients that aren't meeting them in person. We can make calls and still do appointments over the phone or on a video chat service, but we're trying to find other ways to reach out to them and offer them support and information," Clock said. "We're doing blogs right now, we're working on Facebook Livestreams. [And case management is doing] everything via phone or video chat, trying to keep everyone as happy and healthy as they can.
Visit the Unified website to learn more about its offered services, where and how to donate and more.