COVID pandemic creates setbacks for HIV care in Louisiana

Published: April 19, 2022

By: Olivia Landry

The number of HIV tests like this one at Crescent Care in New Orleans dropped sharply during the COVID-19 pandemic (Photo courtesy of Crescent Care)

For decades, Louisiana was one of the worst states for HIV transmission, and in 2015, healthcare leaders created a plan to try to end the epidemic.

As they expanded access to prevention tools and health services and pushed to ease the stigma surrounding the human immunodeficiency virus, new diagnoses dropped by more than 20%, and by 2019, Louisiana no longer ranked among the 10 states with the highest transmission rates.

Then COVID hit, forcing immunocompromised people like HIV sufferers to isolate themselves. Many of the more than 22,000 Louisiana residents with HIV or AIDS lost in-person access to health providers, and newly diagnosed patients did not get the treatments that can keep them from transmitting the virus. Testing sites also administered far fewer tests, and five years of progress evaporated.

Preliminary data suggests that after a multi-year decline, new HIV diagnoses increased by about 33%, from 722 in 2020 to 960 in 2021, according to the Louisiana Department of Health.

“We don’t know exactly why that was the case,” said Sam Burgess, the STD/HIV program director at the health department. “We certainly know there was a lot less testing in 2020 and 2021. There were a lot of calls out to the public to avoid routine medical visits, so I think a lot of people delayed their screenings for sexual health. Some of the folks who probably would have been diagnosed in 2020 were diagnosed in 2021.”

Testing is picking up again with the recent lull in COVID cases, but the totals are not reaching pre-pandemic numbers.

Testing efforts at Crescent Care, one of the main HIV/AIDS treatment centers in New Orleans, were cut in half over the last two years. The clinic administered almost 8,000 HIV tests in 2019. Because lockdowns limited many patients to telehealth visits, the number decreased to 4,000 in both 2020 and 2021.

“The most effective means of HIV testing is getting out in the community and testing people,” said Dr. Jason Halperin, an infectious disease specialist at Crescent Care. “In lockdowns and social distancing, all of that testing has stopped.”

Read more at Louisiana Illuminator

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