The coronavirus pandemic has forced HIV/AIDS service organizations and advocacy groups in Puerto Rico to change the way they work.
AIDS Healthcare Foundation Regional Director for Puerto Rico Silvana Erbstein on Tuesday told the Washington Blade in an email the organization’s clinic in Trujillo Alto, a municipality that is less than 15 miles southeast of the Puerto Rican capital of San Juan, “remains operational.”
Erbstein said the clinic continues to provide medical, case management and pharmacy services and transportation for its patients.
“All staff is on site and our clients are being served in person when needed (emergencies, needed lab, treatment) or via phone consultation,” said Erbstein. “Strict policies and procedures on safety for patients and staff, and social distancing are followed.”
Erbstein said AIDS Healthcare Foundation’s pharmacy “continues its operations as usual,” although it is delivering most medications to patients’ homes or making them available for on-site pick up. Arianna Lint, executive director of Arianna’s Center, a South Florida-based organization that works with transgender Puerto Ricans, told the Blade that Arianna’s Center has also reached out to the pharmacy to “make sure transgender people in Puerto Rico have a continued relationship” with it during the pandemic.
Wilfred Labiosa, executive director of Waves Ahead and SAGE Puerto Rico, told the Blade on March 31 during a telephone interview from San Juan that local pharmacies have also given medications to patients without prescriptions.
Labiosa said Waves Ahead and SAGE Puerto Rico went fully online on March 17, the day before Gov. Wanda Vázquez issued an island-wide lockdown and curfew. Labiosa told the Blade the organizations’ roughly 300 clients who live in the San Juan metropolitan area and in Cabo Rojo, a municipality on Puerto Rico’s west coast, access services through their smart phones.
Waves Ahead and SAGE Puerto Rico also continue to provide coronavirus and non-coronavirus information and services on their Facebook pages.
“We are adapting to the new reality in Puerto Rico,” said Labiosa.
Bill’s Kitchen is a San Juan-based organization that prepares meals for nearly 900 people with HIV/AIDS.
Sandy Torres, the group’s executive director, on April 3 told the Blade during a telephone interview that she and her colleagues began to plan for the pandemic’s arrival in Puerto Rico in February.
Torres said Bill’s Kitchen provided clients with two weeks worth of supplies after Vázquez announced the curfew.
She told the Blade that Bill’s Kitchen received additional funds that allow her staff to deliver food, medications and other basic needs to more than 100 clients. Torres also said case managers continue to call their clients to see what they need.
“We put that intervention together three weeks ago and we have been doing that on the phone everyday since then,” she said.
The pandemic arrived in Puerto Rico less than three years after Hurricane Maria devastated the U.S. commonwealth. A series of strong earthquakes caused extensive damage on Puerto Rico’s southwest coast earlier this year.
Former Gov. Ricardo Rosselló, a member of the pro-statehood New Progressive Party, resigned last August after a series of homophobic and misogynistic messages between him and members of his administration became public. Vázquez was Puerto Rico’s justice secretary before she became governor.
The Puerto Rico Department of Health indicates there are currently 683 confirmed coronavirus cases on the island and 33 deaths. The latest statistics also indicate 6,696 coronavirus tests have been conducted in Puerto Rico.
Vázquez on Sunday announced all businesses except for pharmacies and gas stations will be closed over the Easter weekend. Labiosa and other activists and service providers continue to criticize the Puerto Rican government’s response to the pandemic that includes lost coronavirus tests and the resignation of two health secretaries in March.
“It’s hard to tell the impact on the LGBTQ community and Puerto Ricans living with HIV because the government has not made testing widely available,” Pedro Julio Serrano, founder of Puerto Rico Para Tod@s, a Puerto Rican LGBTQ advocacy group, told the Blade on March 31 in a text message. “To make things worse, there’s very little demographic information on who has tested positive.”
Serrano, who is a vocal critic of Vázquez and the New Progressive Party, added Puerto Rico is “flying with a blindfold imposed by the government and that is dangerous.”
“There’s no way of telling how widespread the pandemic is on the island,” he said.
Raymond Rohena of the Puerto Rico Trans Youth Coalition echoed Serrano.
“A lot of scientific information is needed to have an accurate picture of the actual situation with regards to coronavirus-related deaths,” said Rohena last week during a Facebook Messenger chat with the Blade their family’s home in the San Juan suburb of Carolina.
Labiosa noted San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz has worked with Quest Diagnostics to open a drive-through coronavirus testing site in her city’s Río Piedras neighborhood. Labiosa nevertheless conceded testing remains limited in Puerto Rico.
“There’s a very limited access to testing here, like in many parts of the states, but here the central government has lost tests in route,” he said.
Rohena and other activists with whom the Blade has spoken say the lockdown and curfew the government has implemented in order to curb the pandemic have made people with HIV/AIDS and LGBTQ Puerto Ricans even more vulnerable.
Labiosa said one of his organizations’ clients — a 78-year-old man with HIV who lives in the San Juan metropolitan area — was eating only one egg every other day until he received his food stamp benefits at the end of March. Labiosa told the Blade the man then waited 45 minutes to enter a supermarket and had to use a shopping cart to bring his groceries home.
“He had to wait and then he exposed himself to go to a major store,” said Labiosa.
Labiosa told the Blade a lack of transportation and access to technology are among the other issues with which his organizations’ clients are dealing.
“It has been really hard for them to join into the platforms that we have developed in order not to stop the services,” he said, noting Waves Ahead and SAGE Puerto Rico are helping their clients get cell phones that can connect to the Internet.
“It is a challenge that we are meeting head on,” added Labiosa.
Lint said many of Arianna Center’s clients in Puerto Rico are sex workers. She told the Blade that many of them are “very, very concerned about their housing situation” because the curfew prevents them from working.
Torres said another concern is many Puerto Ricans with HIV have asthma and other health issues that make them even more vulnerable to the coronavirus. Torres told the Blade that many of Bill’s Kitchen’s clients receive food stamps and they are concerned about whether they will have enough food to eat during the lockdown.
“[There is] a very high level of anxiety,” Torres told the Blade. “There is also a lot of loneliness with this distancing.”
Rohena and Labiosa also expressed concern over the way the Puerto Rican government will distribute the money earmarked for the U.S. commonwealth under the $2.2 trillion stimulus package that President Trump signed on March 27.
The Associated Press reports anyone who makes under $75,000 a year will receive $1,200. Parents will also receive $500 for each child under the bill that Trump signed.
“I am afraid to ask about the distribution of that aid,” Labiosa told the Blade. “I told myself don’t hold your breath for the check. Let’s just celebrate if we receive it.” “We would be pleasantly surprised if all of our clients get that check,” he added. “It will really benefit them and a lot of the people in general who work in the tourism industry or those (industries that) are really impacted.”
The Blade has reached out to the Puerto Rican government for comment.