A report from UNAIDS revealed health centers recorded some form of interruption to HIV prevention and treatment services due to the pandemic between February and May in 11 of 16 countries, including South Africa. A May model by UNAIDS and the World Health Organization estimated that a six-month disruption of antiretroviral therapy (ART) could result in more than 500,000 additional deaths from AIDS-related illnesses. (In 2018, an estimated 470,000 people died from AIDS-related deaths in sub-Saharan Africa.)
Facing these realities, AIDS organizations used unconventional approaches to reach HIV patients. Late in April when the J. Dumane Clinic in Gauteng province briefly shut down after confirming its first coronavirus infection, the group set up a mobile clinic in the parking lot. Outside the truck, white tents shielded hospital beds and staff members as they distributed prescriptions and ran HIV and tuberculosis tests.
The Aurum Institute started to run about 300 medication home deliveries each day across the country. The center scaled up its drug depot services, called Pelebox. The system alerts patients by text message when their medications are ready and available at the depot units.
As staffers noticed a 30 percent dip in the number of patients entering and leaving their facilities, they ramped up support services, including an increase in phone calls and additional COVID-19 support to their regular messaging services. “We tell them if you stay on treatment, your immune system is high and you won’t be at higher risk,” Rech said.
To protect its own healthcare workers, Aurum reduced the number of staff in every office, provided them with protective equipment, and held weekly digital meetings to keep the team motivated. Still, the group suffered its own losses: Three staff members died from COVID-19, and 500 of its 3,000-member team contracted the virus.