By Tandy Lau
New Yorkers recognized World AIDS Day 2022 last Thursday, Dec. 1. For four straight hours, names of those who died from the epidemic were read in Greenwich Village for the first in-person observation at the NYC AIDS Memorial since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Beyond a day of remembrance, Thursday was also a day of action. Activists and elected officials called for decriminalizing sexual activity and providing statewide permanent housing for New Yorkers living with HIV/AIDS, along with more overdose prevention centers.
“We do not solve public health crises with criminalization,” said Assemblymember Jessica González-Rojas. “We solve public health crises with public health solutions and that means changing policies, systems and structures to ensure everyone can get the care that they need, not just to survive but to thrive.”
VOCAL-NY organizers rallied and marched for Gov. Kathy Hochul to invest in rental assistance for New Yorkers living with HIV/AIDS after she promised them expanded support last year, especially for those in Black and brown communities.
“A person who is HIV positive, and doesn’t have a place to live [is] going to be more concerned with where they live tonight, as opposed to whether or not they’re going to keep their medication,” said VOCAL-NY Board Chair Reginald T. Brown. “If they have medication, where are they going to keep the medication? If you’re worried about where you’re going to sleep, then taking your medication is not going to be high on your list.”
Last Tuesday, Nov. 29, the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene revealed a 14% uptick of new HIV diagnoses in 2021, although officials are unclear if the increase is due to more transmissions or just delayed testing in 2020 from the COVID-19 pandemic. Last year’s rise is an aberration, with an otherwise steady decline in new diagnoses over the past two decades.
“New HIV diagnoses continue to fall, and we are also seeing a rebound in HIV testing and care-seeking,” said Health Commissioner Dr. Ashwin Vasan in a statement. “Both of these achievements are a testament to recent and historical public health advocacy that never gave up the fight for better services and support. World AIDS Day is an important moment to recognize what has been won, remember what has been lost and commit to ending the epidemic once and for all.”
The department’s report found Black and brown New Yorkers made up over 80% of HIV diagnoses last year. Roughly half of those who died from AIDS in 2021 were Black. Diagnoses were the highest in Brooklyn while deaths were highest in the Bronx. Transmission from men who have sex with men was the leading category for both HIV/AIDS diagnoses and deaths in 2021. Injection drug use transmission is the second leading cause of HIV/AIDS death despite making up less than 1% of HIV diagnoses and only 5% of AIDS diagnoses last year.
In 2016, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention projected half of gay Black men nationwide will be diagnosed with HIV in their lifetimes, although the model is based on if rates from 2009-2013 persisted, according to an agency spokesperson. Since the turn of the century, the city documents a 7% change decrease annually in HIV diagnoses for Black New Yorkers—in 2001, 3,016 were diagnosed with HIV, compared to 704 last year.
But the epidemic isn’t finished yet. For New Yorkers living with HIV like Brown, who uses they/them pronouns, breaking societal barriers will encourage testing and medicine use, ultimately saving lives.
“Stigma is actually more deadly now than HIV,” they said. “Even right now—40 years into this—and the stigma is almost still as bad as it was at the beginning. And now we know what’s going on, we know what to do. But the stigma surrounding [HIV/AIDS] is still found.
“The way I fight the stigma is by standing up and publicly saying, ‘I’ve been HIV positive and this is what it looks like.’ There’s nothing you can stigmatize me [for].”
Tandy Lau is a Report for America corps member and writes about public safety for the Amsterdam News. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep him writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by visiting https://bit.ly/amnews1.