Navigating HIV Treatment and Prevention During COVID-19
Living with HIV during the COVID-19 pandemic
It’s been over six months since the first stay-at-home orders swept across the country, and we’re just beginning to replace widespread uncertainty about the coronavirus with real-world data. There’s still much we don’t know about how COVID-19 affects those living with HIV, but researchers are working quickly to glean insights from cases over the past months.
Though our understanding is continually evolving and the data is limited, experts believe that people with HIV who are receiving treatment have the same risk for COVID-19 as the general population. We do know, however, that people with weakened immune systems are more likely to get severely sick from COVID-19, which underscores the already vital importance of preventing new HIV infections and ensuring access to treatment.
If you are at risk of HIV infection or living with HIV, we encourage you to not put prevention or treatment on hold. It’s also crucial that you stick to the plan outlined by your doctor as closely as possible, especially by taking your medications correctly and on time. As your pharmacy, we’re here to help you overcome any challenges in maintaining your regimen that may arise. Let’s walk through the latest advice on how you can access the medications and services you need while protecting yourself from infection with COVID-19.
Is COVID-19 illness more severe in people living with HIV?
As we mentioned, when HIV is being treated, it does not seem to increase the risk of infection or severe illness. Those who are living with HIV and not on treatment or virally suppressed, however, may be at greater risk of COVID-19 complications. Additionally, older people living with HIV and those with other underlying health conditions may also be at greater risk of serious illness from COVID-19. It’s important to take precautions to protect yourself from COVID-19 infection by following CDC guidelines, such as wearing a mask, social distancing, and washing hands and high-touch surfaces often.
We know that people living with HIV are more vulnerable to respiratory infections when their HIV is not well managed. That’s because their weakened immune systems may be unprepared to deal with an invading virus. For this reason, it’s incredibly important to continue your antiretroviral treatment (ART) as prescribed. If you are having difficulty continuing your treatment for any reason, talk with your healthcare provider right away.
What additional precautions should people living with HIV take?
The most important actions you can take for your health are to continue your HIV treatment and avoid potential exposure to the coronavirus. Follow the preventative guidelines outlined by the CDC to protect yourself and others from getting sick. Additionally, you should take the following precautions:
- Keep your regular medical appointments and discuss ways you can reduce your risk of exposure to COVID-19 during your visits. Use telehealth services whenever possible; your doctor can advise you on the remote options available to you.
- Keep at least a 30-day supply of your HIV medications on hand as well as any other medications or supplies you need to manage your health. If possible, ask for a three-month supply and choose a pharmacy that offers home delivery to avoid spending time in close contact with others while standing in lines. (Alto’s couriers will hand-deliver your medications to your doorstep, so you never have to worry about mail delays either!)
- People living with HIV are at a higher risk of serious flu-related complications, make sure all your vaccinations are up-to-date, especially your flu shot.
- The CDC recommends maintaining a healthy diet, aiming for 8 hours of sleep every night, and taking steps to reduce stress.
What should I do if I feel unwell?
If you start to feel sick, especially if you have a dry cough, fever, fatigue, and/or a loss of smell or taste, stay at home and contact your doctor immediately so you can determine your next steps. You will need to self-isolate to avoid spreading the coronavirus to others as you await instructions from your doctor. For this reason, we strongly recommend having a plan in place for if you get sick, including keeping 30 days’ worth of medications, food, and other supplies on hand.
How can I get tested for HIV during the COVID-19 pandemic?
It’s as important as ever to know your HIV status. If you’re at risk for HIV, talk to your healthcare provider about your options for getting tested. The CDC has stressed the importance of continued access to HIV testing and encourages people who are at risk for HIV infection to get tested in ways that support social distancing and stay-at-home orders (when they are in place), such as self-testing when possible. They have created this resource that lists self-testing services by state. You can also find in-person testing locations here.
I’ve lost my insurance. How can I continue to get my HIV medication?
As we face this public health crisis, record numbers of people are also losing their jobs and employer-based coverage. If you’re currently uninsured or cannot afford your out-of-pocket costs, there are resources that can help. HIV.gov puts out this list of toll-free helplines that can help you find programs and services in your state to lower your treatment costs. They also list a variety of federal resources here.
The AIDS Drug Assistance Program (ADAP), which is part of the Ryan White HIV/AIDS Program was created to help cover the cost of HIV-related prescription medications for people who have limited or no prescription drug coverage. Eligibility may vary by state, so find out more by using the ADAP Directory to identify your local program.
How can I continue to access PrEP during the COVID-19 pandemic?
If you are at risk of HIV exposure, protecting yourself needs to remain a top priority. PrEP, or pre-exposure prophylaxis, is an HIV prevention method that's available by prescription. We explain more in our article, “All About PrEP for HIV Prevention.”
If you are already taking PrEP, talk to your provider about the possibility of telehealth options for the time being and see if you can get a prescription for a 90-day supply of PrEP. To find an in-person or online provider, visit one of the following websites:
If you need help paying for PrEP, there are assistance programs available that can cover the costs. PleasePrEPme.org maintains a comprehensive list of available resources here.
What are some ways to cope with stress and anxiety right now?
It’s normal to experience heightened emotions during times of stress. And, unfortunately, some of the actions we are taking to protect ourselves, such as social distancing, can negatively impact our emotional well-being. Here are some ways you can protect your mental health and cope with the stress and uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic.
- Unplug when you need to. It’s important to stay informed, however, the constant cycle of news reports and social media updates can become all-consuming and overwhelming. Take breaks from your devices when necessary and try to focus on reliable news sources and avoid social media accounts and websites that may be spreading rumors or false information.
- Find soothing activities and practice them daily. Maybe you turn to a calming classic like meditation when you need to recharge or perhaps nothing makes you happier than whipping up a batch of chocolate chip cookies from scratch. Whatever helps you unwind is good for your emotional well-being and overall health.
- Stay on top of your health and wellness. Stress can disrupt your usual healthy habits. Try to move your body frequently, incorporate healthy foods, and get a full night’s sleep. You may not succeed every day and that’s okay. Just do your best to keep up your healthy habits most of the time.
- Seek help if you need it. If feelings of fear, anger, sadness, worry, or numbness interfere with your responsibilities for several days in a row or if you find yourself turning to unhealthy coping strategies like drugs or alcohol, please reach out for help. The CDC offers this list of free and confidential resources.
We’re open and here for you
We are committed to ensuring you receive your HIV medications safely and on time throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. Our pharmacy locations are fully stocked, our couriers are ready, and our pharmacists can assist with coordinating early refills and longer fills. We offer free, contactless delivery, plus ongoing access to support and advice.
Our HIV speciality team is available to answer your questions 9 am – 12 midnight ET Monday – Friday, and 10 am – 9 pm ET on weekends. Download the mobile app for secure messaging or call 1-800-874-5881.
This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or another qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.