National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day is observed every year on Feb. 7 to increase awareness, spark conversations, and highlight the work done to reduce HIV in Black communities.
It is also an opportunity to show support for Black people living with HIV/AIDS. In 2021, it’s also an excellent day to make a plan to get vaccinated for COVID-19.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Black Americans make up a higher proportion of new HIV diagnoses and people with HIV, compared to other races and ethnicities. Only 13% of the U.S. population is Black, but Blacks represent 42% of the country’s new HIV diagnoses.
For the past year, the COVID-19 pandemic is only making things worse.
“Unfortunately, Black people die of AIDS every day in the state of Florida,” Dr. Hansel Tookes said in an interview. “In 2021, people forget this fact, but I can tell you that COVID has only worsened the HIV epidemic. Black people are also at higher risk of death from COVID.”
Dr. Tookes is a University of Miami physician and professor who founded the IDEA Exchange five years ago. It's Florida’s first needle exchange program and clinic, designed to help lower the state’s high rates of HIV transmission.
"We [the Black community] are the under-appreciated front-line workers in so many cases — the grocery store clerks, the environmental health staff in hospitals,” Dr. Tookes said. "We never had the luxury to stay home and quarantine and have everything brought to us while the world figured out how to best fight this pandemic. And many in our community died. What is most important is that we don’t get left behind as we have been in the advancements made in the HIV epidemic. And that will begin with getting vaccinated against COVID.”
COVID-19 has taken a disproportionate toll in severe sickness and death on Black people in the U.S, where the scourge has killed over 430,000 Americans. According to the CDC, Black, Hispanic, and Native American people are dying from COVID-19 at almost three times the rate of white people.
“Unfortunately, but not unexpectedly, the largest cohort study of which I am aware was published in Lancet HIV in December,” Dr. Tookes said. “It showed that not only are people living with HIV at higher risk of death from COVID, but Black people living with HIV are also at even increased risk compared to non-Black people living with HIV. The study was done in the National Health Service of England, which is quite comprehensive. Health disparities are not a uniquely American phenomenon. We must acknowledge them, then take action to right the healthcare injustices. This will begin with targeted vaccination efforts. Please, when you are eligible, take the vaccine — whatever vaccine is offered.”
Both viruses also demonstrate the importance of knowing your status. CDC data indicate that one in seven Black people who have HIV don’t know they are infected.
You can visit https://knowyourhivstatus.com/get-tested/ to find HIV testing locations in South Florida. For information on COVID testing sites near you, visit https://www.floridadisaster.org/covid19/testing-sites/.