Illinois must prioritize people living with HIV in COVID-19 vaccine distribution

The state of Illinois recently expanded eligibility criteria for the COVID-19 vaccine—called Phase 1B Plus—to include people with certain high-risk conditions. However, the list of qualifying conditions does not yet include people living with HIV (PLWH). This is at odds with the state’s commitment to health equity and prioritizing the most vulnerable communities in vaccine distribution.

Recently, two large population-based studies have found that PLWH are at increased risk of experiencing adverse health outcomes—including hospitalization and death—from COVID-19. In fact, one of these studies found the PLWH were 2.61 times more likely to experience hospitalization due to COVID-19 compared to people not diagnosed with HIV. Given this new scientific evidence, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) recently released a new guidance document stating, “people with HIV appear to be at increased risk for severe outcomes with COVID-19 compared with people without HIV and should be included in the category of high-risk medical conditions when developing vaccine priority.”

Prioritizing PLWH is not only backed by scientific evidence, it is also rooted in health equity and racial justice. Beyond the HIV diagnosis itself, PLWH are experiencing other comorbidities and structural barriers that can increase their vulnerability to COVID-19. Because of widespread discrimination and stigma, PLWH experience disparities in accessing housing, stable income, and other social determinants of health that have an enormous impact on one’s ability to stay healthy, especially during a global pandemic.

Historic and structural racism creates barriers to accessing critical healthcare and social services, resulting in stark racial disparities in health outcomes for both HIV and COVID-19. Black and Latinx people are significantly overrepresented among new HIV diagnoses in this country, and they also experience lower rates of viral suppression. According to the latest figures from the CDC, Black, Latinx, and Indigenous people have approximately 3-4 times higher rates of hospitalization and 2-3 times higher rates of death from COVID-19 compared to white, non-Hispanic people. More must be done to ensure that Black, Latinx, and Indigenous communities are explicitly and meaningfully prioritized in COVID-19 vaccine distribution, and including PLWH in Phase 1B Plus would further bolster the state’s existing efforts to prioritize communities of color.

At Howard Brown, it is our goal to reach as many people as possible in our vaccination efforts, with an emphasis on equitable distribution of the vaccine to under-resourced and disproportionately impacted communities. We strategically partner with community organizations on the South and West Sides to offer vaccine access to those who have been hardest impacted by the pandemic, and have so far administered a majority of available vaccine doses to communities of color.

In order to ensure equitable and evidence-based vaccine rollout strategies throughout Illinois, Howard Brown has partnered with AFC and other healthcare advocates calling on city, county, and state officials to promptly prioritize PLWH, as well as Black, Latinx, and Indigenous communities, in vaccine distribution.

Tags: Advocacy


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