The LGBT population may be at increased risk for COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus. To get the word out, over 100 national and local organizations have signed an open letter initiated by a coalition of six organizations.
The letter spells out the main reasons for the heightened concerns. It also lists 10 ways those involved with the COVID-19 response—including health officials and the media—can ensure that LGBT people are treated properly during coronavirus outbreaks.
According to the letter, three main factors increase the vulnerability of the LGBTQ community to COVID-19:
- The LGBTQ population uses tobacco at rates that are 50 percent higher than the general population. This is relevant because COVID-19 is a respiratory disease that is harmful to smokers.
- The LGBT population has higher rates of cancer and HIV, both of which can compromise a person’s immune system and make someone more vulnerable to COVID-19.
- The LGBTQ population still faces discrimination, including in health care settings. This makes many people hesitate to seek care.
The letter also notes that because LGBTQ seniors may fear harassment or discrimination, they are less likely than straight elders to be involved in health and wellness programs for seniors. Over 3 million LGBTQ older people are living in the United States; they are especially vulnerable to COVID-19, which has a higher mortality rate among older people in general.
What is and isn’t known
Over a month after the new coronavirus respiratory disease known as COVID-19 came to public attention, researchers and public health officials are continuing to learn about its spread, its mortality rate and who is most likely to become seriously ill.
Although much remains unknown, it’s clear that older people, those with other health conditions and people with compromised immune systems have a higher likelihood of severe illness. This may include people living with HIV, especially those with low CD4 counts. But taking some basic precautions can lower your risk and improve your well-being.
The mortality rate for COVID-19 is thought to be around 2.5%, based on the numbers reported in the hardest-hit areas of China. This is substantially higher than the typical seasonal flu (around 0.1%), but much lower that the death rates of the SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) and MERS (Middle East respiratory syndrome) coronaviruses, at around 10% and 30%, respectively.
A majority of people with COVID-19 have mild symptoms including fever, cough and shortness of breath. Around 20% develop more severe illness, including pneumonia and acute respiratory distress syndrome, which may require intensive care and in some cases mechanical ventilation.
But not everyone who contracts the virus is at equal risk. According to a recent study by the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention of more than 45,000 confirmed cases, people with coexisting conditions had higher death rates: 5.6% for cancer, 6.0% for high blood pressure, 6.3% for chronic respiratory disease, 7.3% for diabetes and 10.5% for cardiovascular disease. The greatest risk was seen among people age 80 or older, at 14.8%.
Researchers are hard at work to develop treatments for COVID-19 and a vaccine for SARS-CoV-2. Certain HIV medications have shown activity against the coronavirus. Clinical trials of Gilead Sciences’ antiviral drug remdesivir are currently underway in China and at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha — home of the CDC’s largest biocontainment unit — where some people who contracted the virus overseas are being treated. A vaccine from Moderna Therapeutics has been sent to the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases for the first Phase I study. However, human trials are expected to last at least a year before a vaccine is ready for widespread use.
What About People With HIV?
Compared with the general population, people with compromised immunity are at higher risk of developing more serious COVID-19 illness. The HIV population is aging, and nearly half are over 50. Those with low CD4 T-cell counts, indicating advanced immune suppression, are at greatest risk. People with HIV are more likely to develop cardiovascular disease and may do so at a younger age. Certain HIV medications, especially older drugs, can cause neutropenia, or depletion of immune system white blood cells that fight infection.
“When you look at who’s been most profoundly ill, it tends to be people who are older, in their 60s, 70s and 80s. As you get older, your immune system doesn’t function as well,” says Steve Pergam, MD, MPH, of the Vaccine and Infectious Disease Division at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center.
Among people living with HIV, “it’s all based on level of immune suppression,” Pergam said. “For an HIV patient who is on stable antiretroviral therapy and has a normal CD4 count, their risk may be slightly increased. People often lump HIV patients with other immunosuppressed patients, but HIV is a different disease than it was years ago. For people who have a reconstituted immune system because of treatment, I think the risk is not going to be tremendously different.”
People with a weakened immune system may be unable to fight off the virus, or they may develop an excessive inflammatory immune response known as a cytokine storm. Paradoxically, immune suppression can sometimes mean fewer or milder early symptoms, such as fever, even as the virus and the body’s response to it ravage the lungs and other organs.
During a special session of the Conference on Retroviruses and Opportunistic Infections on March 10 — held virtually by webcast because of the crisis — John Brooks, MD, of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said that the risk of COVID-19 is likely greater for HIV-positive people who have a low CD4 count or do not have full viral suppression on antiretrovirals. Nonetheless, given how much remains unknown, he advised that all people with HIV take precautions.
Brooks’ recommendations include ensuring at least a 30-day supply of medications, keeping up to date with flu and pneumonia vaccines, and establishing a plan for clinical care if isolated or quarantined. Finally, he advised, “Maintain a social network, but remotely—social contact helps us stay mentally healthy and fights boredom.” Q
A version of this story first appeared in POZ, an award-winning print and online brand for people living with and affected by HIV/AIDS. Since 1994, POZ magazine and POZ.com are trusted by readers as their best sources of information about the disease.