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AFC head details coronavirus response
by Matt Simonette
2020-03-25

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AIDS Foundation of Chicago ( AFC ) is among the Chicago agencies that have mobilized an aggressive response to the coronavirus crisis. AFC President and CEO John Peller, who has led the agency since 2014, discussed AFC's strategies to continue delivering services to its constituency in the midst of the burgeoning health crisis, as well as available resources for persons living with HIV/AIDS who may have recently found themselves in need.

Windy City Times: Beyond just working remotely, how have AFC's operations shifted with the advent of the COVID-19 crisis?

John Peller: Working remotely really hasn't changed our operations at all. Staff members are meeting people in the community [virtually] and are asking questions to make sure that clients are healthy and don't have any symptoms of potential coronavirus.

Other than just being careful, our focus has really been making sure that we're able to continue to provide the same level of services that we have previously. There are some challenges, like getting signatures for consent and so forth, but we're doing our best to work through them. Our state and City partners have been helpful in reviewing those requirements and providing flexibility when they're able.

Our biggest concern right now is that folks need help and don't know where to get it. There are a lot of people who've lost their job and need access to medications, or need medical care, or help paying their rent. For people living with HIV, we're able to help with all of that. Our case management system is open and waiting to serve people.

The best place to get all that is the new resource hub we launched with Center on Halsted. The number for that is 844-HUB-4040.

WCT: Speak a bit about the work with state and local officials as the health crisis has panned out.

JP: The daily flood of updates that's been coming out from our state and city partners have been incredible. The governor and his team, and the mayor and City folks, have been working overtime to respond to this outbreak.

Our biggest concern with the day-to-day operations of government is to make sure that our programs continue to operate with everyone working remotely. We need to make sure, for example, that people continue to get paid for providing services for people with HIV. So we're having a lot of conversations with our partners about how we're able to continue those critical operations. The [state and local] government response has just been awe-inspiring and we're so grateful for how hard our partners and leaders have been working and have been able to respond.

WCT: How is AFC's solvency in all this? Are you confident you'll be able to weather this?

JP: I do feel confident that we'll be able to weather this. I of course am quite concerned that we'll face a drop in individual donations and private support, as people lose their jobs. We've had to reschedule some events, as has every organization. This is really a time for anyone who is able to dig deep and provide support for organizations that provide critical services.

WCT: What services and resources for persons with HIV/AIDS can potentially be impacted?

JP: What we're seeing right now is that services have not been impacted so far, and should not be into the future. We're seeing the federal government—hopefully this will be finalized in the next couple of days—stepping up for funding with the Ryan White program and the HOPWA [Housing Opportunities for Persons With AIDS] program.

We are very concerned about housing resources, and people who are newly unemployed and can't pay their rent. Resources are available in Chicago and the greater Chicago area to help people who need support to pay their rent. We can provide emergency one-time assistance with rent or utilities for persons with HIV. That's available by calling the resource hub.

We are in constant communication with the clinics that provide HIV services, and they are really overwhelmed with responding to potential coronavirus cases and people who think they might be exposed or sick. They've been doing a great job of providing services remotely, through telemedicine and just making sure that people don't have to come in.

Another thing we're really concerned about is access to food, and the City has done a really good job with coordinating some of that. But I think the need is going to be great and is going to continue to be. The Vital Bridges food pantry is amazing and they have pre-packaged bags of food for folks with HIV.

Longer term, we're looking at food-delivery and ways that we can respond so that folks can get delivery in their home. I think it's tremendous to see so many providers stepping up and providing services through telemedicine, as well. From counseling to case-management, all of that is being done remotely.

Of course the challenge is, what if someone doesn't have a phone, or they run out of phone minutes? We signed onto a letter and did a separate action alert for a campaign that urged the FCC to give folks unlimited Lifeline minutes—Lifeline is the government phone program. We think it's really critical that folks who have government phones have those unlimited minutes, so they can call their doctor and they can stay in touch with their family when they're isolated, both to maintain their mental health and get their other needs taken care of.

WCT: What issues do you see this posing for social service delivery in general, over both the short and long terms?

JP: In the short term, we are all scrambling to maintain services. There are a lot of agencies that just don't have the technology for folks to work remotely and they had to scramble to provide remote access to their employees.

We were able to help folks out in some regards with that—we fortunately were able to act quickly. But just having flexible resources, to be able to invest in the infrastructure needed to survive in the long term and adapt to new service delivery models is critical.

Ultimately it's the small minority-led organizations that could be hurt the most by this, because they're often not able or don't have the flexible resources to adapt. That's something we'll all have to keep an eye on, to support those folks.

I think we all have to work to be prepared for this to go on for a long time. There have been talks of the outbreak coming in waves, and the governor and the City's orders to stay home will eventually be released, and that could lead in the long run to new cases. We'll have to be vigilant and maintain practices that we're getting into now, like hand-washing and social-distancing, because this is going to be a long-haul ahead of us.

WCT: Is there anything you'd like to add?

JP: A couple of things: One, this is not the time to be going out and hooking up. We're really concerned that folks are stuck in their house and bored. This is really a time to practice social distancing in all forms; that includes hookups, because that could result in some serious health issues.

We're also concerned that the populations that are most impacted by HIV are going to be most impacted by coronavirus, and that opens equity issues. The populations most impacted by HIV include Black gay men, Black cisgender women, Latinx gay men and of course trans women of all races.

Those populations are most likely to be low-income and are already highly vulnerable. They are [populations] that I think are going to see a real concentration of coronavirus [transmissions], with the fewest resources to respond. I think it's critical that we look at this from a viewpoint of equity, and make sure that we are putting equity at the front-and-center of our response.

AFC/Center on Halsted's resource hub can be reached by calling 844-HUB-4040.


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