BINGHAMTON, NY (WSKG) — The federal response to COVID-19 was not agile, but one long-time advocate for people living with AIDS said it has been much more swift than the response to that epidemic.
“Voilà, we have a vaccine,” said John Barry, executive director of the Southern Tier AIDS Program (STAP). He started with STAP in 1991, when, as Barry put it, a lot of people were still dying and very quickly from HIV/AIDS.
According to the CDC, the first case of AIDS was reported in California in June 1981, ten years earlier. Then, in May 1991, there were 179,136 cases in the United States. By the end of that year, AIDS was the leading cause of death among men age 25 to 44. It was among the top five leading causes of death for girls and women aged 15 to 44.
Barry blamed much of the discrepancy in federal response to the two public health crisis on discrimination.
“A lot of that has to do with how the respective diseases were transmitted and the groups of people that were at highest risk,” he said. Many marginalized groups are more at risk for contracting HIV/AIDS—gay men, people who use injection drugs, transgender women, and Black and Hispanic people—and that homophobia, the stigma around injection drug use, sexism and racism all contributed to a slow response. Barry added, “Specifically, in this case, medical racism.”
COVID-19 devastated New York’s finances, resulting in a budget deficit of $15 billion. Barry said that has already negatively impacted the progress on the state’s goal of ending the epidemic including funding delays to harm reduction programs like syringe exchanges.
The opioid epidemic is another decades long public health fight. From 1999 to 2019, 450,000 people died from overdose, according to the CDC. The agency reported 81,000 overdose deaths in 12 months, from May 2019 to May 2020.
Social distancing can help limit the spread of COVID-19, but the isolation can also be dangerous for people at risk of an overdose. A hotline is available so the person on the line can react if a caller is unresponsive.
“A lot of mental health issues lead to substance use, and increased substance use, and those are often feelings of depression; feeling despondent, feeling alone, being isolated,” said Alexis Pleus, executive director of the advocacy group Truth Pharm. “Now we have a pandemic that is increasing all of those things.”
While the number of overdose deaths were already increasing before the COVID pandemic, the CDC reported it has accelerated the trend.