Tale of two viruses: Why many say there was a difference in treatment of those who contracted COVID-19, HIV

770K people have died from AIDS-related illnesses since start of epidemic in 1981
Posted at 5:49 PM, Jun 08, 2021
and last updated 2021-06-11 13:46:45-04

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — You can call it a tale of two viruses, HIV and COVID-19. Both have taken the lives of thousands of people worldwide, and there have been major medical advancements in treating both. Still, some people have noticed the societal response to these viruses was drastically different.

ABC Action News in-depth reporter Anthony Hill has spoken with several members of the LGBTQ community, including a local man living with HIV who has also had COVID-19. He lived during the onset of both viruses, and he tells Anthony why he believes society was more sympathetic to those who contracted COVID-19.

"I was on death's door, and he actually came into my hospital room and told me I was not leaving the hospital alive. And I told him I didn't accept that," said Trevor Keller, recounting the near-death HIV-related experience he had back in 1998. "I think I was on, like, 30 pills, three times a day."

But, unlike many, he survived to tell the tale of two viruses that impacted the world because he also contracted COVID-19 last July.

Trevor contracted HIV when he was 24 years old at the height of the AIDS epidemic, and he mostly kept his diagnosis a secret.

"I saw the reaction of people and the fear in people's eyes, and I think that's why I kept it to myself, especially in my small town."

Discrimination against people living with the virus was common in his hometown of Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

"They'd walk into a store, and you could tell that they were sick by their appearance, and they were refused service."

Trevor says he's lost several friends to the AIDS epidemic. The CDC estimates that about 770,000 people have died from AIDS-related illnesses since the start of the epidemic in 1981.

"In the 80s, HIV and AIDS were completely undiscussed," said Jim Nixon, LGBTQ liaison for the mayor's office of St. Petersburg. He still remembers when AIDS was first reported 40 years ago. In fact, he says HIV was known as the "gay man's disease."

He believes it wasn't discussed because of who it primarily affected.

"To people in the community, it seemed as if they really just did not care, and because it was gay men, it didn't matter."

He says during the onset of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s, many government officials, including President Ronald Reagan, wouldn't even refer to the disease by name, rendering people living with AIDS virtually invisible.

He says though there are similarities between the AIDS and COVID-19 pandemics, he believes society just wasn't as compassionate to those who contracted AIDS compared to those who contracted COVID-19.

"They weren't blaming people for having COVID, as opposed to HIV where people were blaming people forgetting it," said Dr. Bob Wallace. He owns a family practice in St. Petersburg, and he's devoted most of his career to AIDS research. He says, even some people in the medical community back then feared working with AIDS patients. "Well, I actually had three different doctors back in the late 1980s tell me not to send any of my patients to their office. I remember one in particular who said, 'I have children. I don't want any of your patients in my waiting room.'"

According to a 2018 study by the CDC, 66% of new HIV diagnoses were by gay men. Black and Latino gay men are disproportionately more likely to contract HIV.

As for Trevor, he plans on continuing to use his voice to take the stigma away from HIV.

"Imagine if our administration had been honest and had done the things that they've done for COVID back then, how many people and how different our world would be today if they had lived."

Dr. Bob Wallace said living with HIV is not the death sentence it used to be. In fact, most people who are treated live a long, healthy life, but it starts with knowing your status.

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