NMAC was very concerned about hosting an in-person event. Transparency and proof of vaccinations were key to this year’s summit. Our relationships are built on trust and the agency felt a responsibility to be open about the impact COVID had on the Summit. Here is what I know: the one person who asked for a COVID test wrote to say they were negative. In fact, they took the test in Chicago and upon their return home to confirm. Three (3) people tested positive. No one went to the hospital or passed. Symptoms included throat irritations, coughing, some lethargy, mild cold/flu symptoms. All three have isolated. They are conducting home tests with a negative PCR follow-up before they return to work. NMAC wishes them a speedy recovery and please keep us informed.
As with HIV testing, confidentiality is important. NMAC does not have the names of any of the individuals nor did we ask for any unique identifiers. We share this information to help the field understand the impact that COVID had on a large HIV meeting with 1,033 participants. These are very uncertain times and there is no playbook.
As we’ve learned with safer sex, only abstinence was 100% safe. For the rest of us, we had to look at the relative risk we were willing to take to both have sex and be safe. There are very real reasons to stay in a COVID bubble. As an old man living with cancer, I understand. After my fourth (4th) shot, I started to rethink my strategy. Like the early days of safer sex, each of us had to figure our personal level of comfort having different kinds of sex. Kissing was my line in the sand, for me it was an essential part of the experience and not something I was willing to give up. Way too much information from grandpa. COVID, like HIV, asks us to weigh the risk and understand the consequences.
Beyond the physical, there are the psychological considerations. COVID created PTSD that we still don’t fully understand. Secretly, I judged and envied friends who jumped back quickly. Going to Chicago was my test. As an informal way to look at our movement, NMAC asked participants to wear a button with their level of comfort being hugged. Overwhelmingly, participants selected the hug button. In fact, the meeting quickly ran out of them. While not scientific, it shows how much people wanted to reconnect. To a person, everyone said they were glad we did not cancel.
I’m publicly sharing NMAC’s experience because similar challenges face our movement. It might not be about conferences, but it is about getting back to normal. COVID changed the world and I don’t think we can go back to the way things were. Trusted voices were critical in COVID and they continue to play important roles in efforts to end the HIV epidemic. Over one thousand people came to Chicago because they trusted that NMAC would not put them in unnecessary danger. That trust is the result of over 30 years of leadership and collaboration.
As we learned with vaccine hesitancy, many people do not trust the government, particularly people of color. As we work to figure out solutions for ending the epidemic, the government needs to be more transparent. COVID exposed many problems with the status quo that will hopefully get fixed before the next virus. We will never end the HIV epidemic if we continue with that same status quo. NMAC challenges our federal colleagues to use what was learned under COVID and apply it to HIV. When I talk about not being able to go back to the way things were, that includes our fight to end HIV. Nobody wants to go back to 35,000 new cases a year where 49% of the people living with HIV are not retained in medical care.
Because people were stuck at home, I got many more readers. While I appreciate everyone’s kind words, Chicago opened my eyes to my responsibility. NMAC’s platform reaches thousands of readers on a weekly basis. I never take that for granted and work to keep our movement informed. Ending the epidemic will not happen by magic. We need to fight to bring the promise of PrEP and U=U to all the communities highly impacted by HIV. Hopefully, I will see you in Puerto Rico!
Yours in the Struggle,