Pandemic accelerated ‘out of the box’ efforts to raise awareness about HIV in the Latino community

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When COVID-19 emerged and threw the world into upheaval, efforts to suppress other viruses became more complicated.

The Southern Nevada HIV Awareness Coalition and its partners, for instance, halted some outreach activities, canceled events and moved support meetings to Zoom. But the Southern Nevada Health District launched a Spanish-language telephone line during the pandemic to direct people to the services they needed. It was a step toward breaking down information barriers — compounded by coronavirus-related shutdowns — affecting the Latino community and, thus, preventing the spread of HIV.

“I think COVID has really taught people how to be more flexible and adjustable, and really think outside the box when it comes to prevention, because HIV didn't go away just because of COVID,” said Chris Reynolds, chair of the Southern Nevada HIV Awareness Coalition. 

In the months that followed the creation of the telephone line, the health district and coalition have continued trying to bolster HIV awareness among Hispanics, a group disproportionately affected by the virus that causes AIDS. Of the state’s 372 new HIV diagnoses last year, 325 occurred in Clark County. Thirty-two percent of newly diagnosed people in 2020 identified as Hispanic, according to data published by the Nevada Department of Health and Human Services

Because 30 percent of Clark County’s population are Hispanic/Latino, the health district has pushed for resources, services and educational materials to be available in Spanish and to have bilingual staff on hand. Although language may be a barrier for many, efforts to reach the Latino community are more personal: Health district staff want to reflect the community they’re serving and be more approachable and familiar with cultural backgrounds.

“This is a minority-majority state. We should have more services, or the services that we have, should be available in multiple languages, and multiple, culturally appropriate materials,” Reynolds said. “Making sure we do have people that speak the language and understand the culture… And understanding that there's a lot of men within the Latino culture that still believe that HIV is only a gay disease. They may be out here doing whatever it may be, whatever behaviors, but it's about that label that they don't identify with.” 

Advocates say some Latinos may be hesitant to seek treatment because of stigma, fear and lack of knowledge about where to access care — not to mention concerns about health insurance, paying for consultations or being reported to authorities if undocumented.

Hispanic/Latino gay and bisexual men accounted for 87 percent new HIV diagnoses among Hispanic/Latino people in 2019, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). 

“The first thing is stigma, and that there is no community. We don't really discuss topics of sexual health or getting tested,” said Reyna Herrera, a disease investigation and intervention specialist at the health district. “Latino culture is very rooted in machismo. People don't want to talk about sex in general and much less when it comes to same-sex relations.”

But early intervention is key for people living with HIV and their partners because treatment can suppress the virus to the point of it being undetectable, which effectively eliminates the risk of transmission through sex, according to the CDC

Last year in Clark County, 33 percent of new HIV Stage 3 diagnoses — the most severe phase that’s considered AIDS — were among Hispanics. That’s the second-highest rate (4.6 per 100,000 population), behind only Black people whose rate was 13.9.

Nationally, about 1 in 6 Hispanics/Latinos with HIV are unaware of their status, which, in turn, means they are not receiving care and treatment.

“If you have a young person that comes in and is diagnosed, newly diagnosed with HIV, they go on treatment, and they stay on treatment and go to their doctor, they will have a normal lifespan,” Reynolds said. “People still die because of HIV, but it's not a death sentence anymore.”

Although 2020 data show a slight decrease in new cases compared to 2019, the pandemic did not stop people from participating in high-risk activities and new case numbers remained “consistent,” said Herrera. The pandemic’s restrictions just added a challenge for the health district.

“We were always busy. I was like, ‘You can't even go to the store right now,’ but it never slowed down. Which is difficult for us because we couldn't go out in the field anymore, so we weren't doing outreach,” Herrera said. “COVID took so much time and energy from our department. Initially a lot of our staff got moved to COVID and only five were working on STDs and HIV.” 

The pandemic, meanwhile, brought new challenges and familiar pain to those already living with HIV, Reynolds said.

“For those of us living with HIV, this is not our first pandemic. That's how we look at it. COVID has actually brought out some different things that a lot of people don't think about,” he said. “Those people that have been dealing with HIV for a long time, COVID has almost caused PTSD, because in the early days of HIV, people weren't allowed to be around other people, or they were quarantined, or nobody wanted to touch them.” 

Oct. 15 marked National Latinx AIDS Awareness Day, but Southern Nevada HIV Awareness Coalition’s scheduled event, where testing, resources and information about treatment options would be available in Spanish, was canceled for a later date because of logistical issues. It will be the organization’s first big in-person event since the pandemic began. 

The Southern Nevada Health District provides HIV/AIDS services that include testing, counseling, case management, outreach efforts, and community referrals, as well as STD screenings and treatment.