The new coronavirus has radically changed daily life for everyone, but for individuals living with HIV, the virus brings with it unique questions and fears.
We asked Dr. Sebastian Ruhs, Interim Chief Medical Officer and Director of Infectious Diseases for Chase Brexton Health Care, to address these questions.
Who faces the highest risks from the coronavirus?
We know from data coming from China and Europe how COVID-19 behaves. Based on the data we have available, those at highest risk from the disease are those with severe conditions like cancer, pulmonary disease, cardiovascular disease.
Is someone living with HIV at higher risk of developing severe symptoms if they come in contact with the coronavirus?
There is no data at this point to suggest that someone living with HIV is at higher risk, especially if their CD4 count is within range and their viral load is undetectable. We’re assuming that COVID-19 behaves in the same way as other illnesses we are very familiar with, such as influenza.
Those at higher risk are people who have very low CD4 counts and are not on medications and don’t have undetectable viral loads. People who fall into this group need to be more cautious than others.
How can individuals living with HIV protect themselves from the coronavirus?
There are no specific guidelines for protecting against COVID-19 for anyone who is living with HIV that are different from the precautions for anyone who is HIV-negative. Washing your hands is an important precaution, and using soap and water has been shown to be more effective than using hand sanitizer. If a sink is unavailable, hand sanitizer is a good alternative.
What I recommend is that everyone make sure they are up to date with their vaccines. Everyone should have the flu vaccine, and those who are HIV-positive should also have the pneumonia shot. While neither the flu vaccine nor the pneumonia vaccine protect against COVID-19, they can prevent someone from getting multiple illnesses.
If I get sick, should I go to the ER?
People who show signs of severe disease, high fever, or respiratory symptoms, difficulty breathing—especially people who have underlying heart conditions or pulmonary conditions—are probably best served in the emergency room, to make sure they don’t require hospital admission.
If someone is mid-aged, a healthy person, and has some mild fever and mild respiratory symptoms, those are probably better served by their primary care physician.
What we recommend for anyone who shows any symptoms is to call first, no matter where they go. Everyone should call first, get triaged over the phone, and get some initial advice.
The ongoing COVID-19 outbreak has resulted in numerous changes to Chase Brexton Health Care’s hours and operations. For the latest on the availability of Chase Brexton services, please visit www.chasebrexton.org/COVIDupdates.