Community in the time of coronavirus

LGBTQ and HIV+ resource providers get creative

In recent days, coronavirus has "turned things upside down" for Jonna Cooley, who heads Springfield's Phoenix Center. The center is the area's premier LGBTQ community resource, providing support groups, housing, STD testing and other services. Normal routines have largely screeched to a halt as a result of efforts to stem the spread of COVID-19.

The pandemic can be a harsh reminder of the way our country has dealt with previous health crises, such as the AIDS epidemic. Current events can be re-traumatizing. And for those still vulnerable, services are functioning at a limited capacity. Providers are looking at creative ways to supplement their usual offerings.

At the Phoenix Center, those who stay in transitional housing are spending their days without the physical presence of staff. "We are assessing their needs and making sure they have what they need," said Cooley. "Fortunately, we have a group of people living in our building right now that are very self-sufficient." The center has two housing programs, one for HIV+ people and the other for LGBTQ people who aren't HIV+.

The center is communicating with each person daily as employees work from home, said Cooley. A mental health provider who works with the center has offered to do video and phone sessions for the time being. Harm reduction programming and support groups are on hiatus to limit the amount of foot traffic in the building.

In Chicago, Jeff Berry is editor of Positively Aware. The magazine is part of the Test Positive Aware Network, a nonprofit focused on resources for people living with HIV. The magazine has digitally compiled coronavirus information, like guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for HIV+ people. "It's probably the most viewed page on our website ever," Berry said.

"Of the people living with HIV, 50% are over the age of 50. And so we're at greater risk," said Berry. It's not known what other implications there might be for HIV+ people when it comes to the new coronavirus, according to the CDC's website. But, according to the CDC, the risk of "getting very sick" with other respiratory infections is higher for HIV+ "people with a low CD4 cell count" and "people not on HIV treatment."

Berry moved to Chicago from a small town in Michigan. He was a DJ at Dugan's Bistro. "It was the Studio 54 of the Midwest," he said. He tested positive for HIV in 1989. He was 30 years old. "It was a very different time and there were really no treatments for HIV and AIDS, and so I lost a lot of friends," he said.

"There was a lot of inaction for many years, and it was years before the president could even utter the word AIDS," said Berry. Discrimination and stigma were rampant, and "people died needlessly because of this horrible inaction." Berry said because of the activists who fought for resources, changes were made, including the way drugs could be approved by the FDA.

Dr. Deborah Birx recently noted that it was activists and advocates who brought about solutions during the HIV epidemic, through community action. She urged people to employ that same sense of community now. Birx is response coordinator for the White House Coronavirus Task Force. "I applaud her, and I agree that that's what we need," said Berry.

About five years ago, Berry co-founded The Reunion Project to connect long term survivors of HIV and AIDS. While the project has offered town hall discussions in various cities, last week it conducted webinars with information about COVID-19.

Like the Phoenix Center, Test Positive Aware Network coordinates mental health services for clients. "From my own perspective, I'm just like, turn off the TV. Don't have on CNN all day," Berry said. "This is a good time to catch up on your reading or funny shows or movies. Spend time playing with your dog or petting your cat or taking up a hobby that you maybe hadn't had time to do before." He said checking in on friends is another way to combat one's own suffering.

"We've got to put aside all of our differences right now and come together to fight this, if we're going to succeed," said Berry.

Contact Rachel Otwell at rotwell@illinoistimes.com and follow her on Twitter: @MsOtwell.

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