On September 15, 2023, Ending the HIV Epidemic: A Plan for America (EHE) and Fast-Track Cities (FTC) Alignment workshops were held in New Orleans, engaging community members in a multitude of moderated discussions on HIV.
Topics included efforts to ensure equitable access to HIV testing, prevention, care, and treatment; local members challenging treatment policy implementation at the city, county, and state level; county-state alignment; and community access to HIV services. A portion of the event tackled HIV criminalization, as well as scaling up PrEP access and utilization. The conference began with an overview of the local EHE plan status and a brief question and answer session, some of which began with how to end the HIV epidemic.
“If you really want to end the HIV epidemic, it has to be flexible enough for us to be able to do what is creative and that it reaches everyone," said Vatsana Chanthala, director of the Ryan White Services and Resources at the New Orleans Health Department. "HIV does not impact one population, it affects everyone.”
One audience member addressed the challenge of receiving HIV treatment across state lines due to traveling for work. According to Ryanne Clarke, chief clinical officer at Priority Health Care, there need to be laws implemented for patients to receive their medications across state lines. A delay or disruption in treatment can be fatal. If one cannot reach an undetectable viral load, it can lead to full-blown AIDS. Disruptions can lead the virus to potentially mutate, building an immune response to the medication. Taking HIV medication everyday, like Biktarvy, is imperative for one's health.
“I can’t provide telehealth services for my patient in Houston because I can’t prescribe across state lines,” Clarke said.
Chanthala made several points about the disconnect on how to provide HIV treatment in cases of emergency, such as hurricane seasons, which create huge barriers in patients receiving treatment.
Five panel topics included addressing PrEP access, treatment policy, and implementation; community access to HIV services; HIV criminalization; and identifying challenges posed by EHE. Each lasted between 30 and 45 minutes.
Rebecca Moses, the centralized linkage coordinator at Ryan White Services and Resources, encounters many at-risk individuals who stress suicidal ideation if someone were to find out about their status. She noted how many patients lack the initiative to rebuild their lives after their diagnosis.
“‘If somebody finds out my status, I will kill myself.’ That is a conversation I had in the hospital with a client,” Moses said.
During some of the brief intermissions between panels, several audience members shared their personal testimonies. One audience member shared his personal story of battling HIV. He shared with all of us the gut-wrenching details of losing friends and community members to this illness and how thankful he was to be present.
The EHE-FTC workshop was more than a conference. It served as a community-inclusive platform to uplift and inspire—regardless of race, sexuality, and identity.