The HIV epidemic continues while populations are less likely to reach out for testing, prevention, and treatment during the pandemic due to a variety of challenges.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, national focus has understandably been placed on managing the spread of SARS-CoV-2. Yet the HIV epidemic still lives on, with populations less likely to reach out for testing, prevention, and treatment during the pandemic due to a variety of challenges, from quarantining and the reduction of hours at testing clinics to a lack of insurance from recent job loss.
Due to these ongoing issues, Walgreens recently launched an HIV prevention initiative with its partners in February around Valentine’s Day. The timing coincided with the holiday’s heightened focus on intimacy for many Americans, with hopes of encouraging discussions around the continuing importance of HIV prevention, even during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We specifically launched the program right around Valentine’s Day because individuals are having more discussions around intimacy and relationships. We really thought it was a great opportunity to highlight what role a pharmacist could play in ending the HIV epidemic, knowing that we really need to have more conversations about it,” said Brad McElya, PharmD, director of specialty health solutions at Walgreens.
The launch of the initiative supports patient access around prevention options such as pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP), as well as how to qualify for free PrEP access through national programs such as Ready, Set, PrEP, which is led by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to assist those who do not have insurance that covers prescription drugs.
“When it comes to PrEP specifically, it’s been around since 2012; however, only 18% of the individuals at risk of acquiring HIV are currently taking PrEP. We know that patients may not be aware of the benefits of PrEP, or what they need to do in order to take their healthcare into their own hands, and it’s really up to us to help inform the patients that they can take this medication to prevent them from acquiring HIV,” McElya said.
With approximately 78% of Americans living within 5 miles of a Walgreens, McElya also explained that the ease of access to Walgreens pharmacies places their stores in a unique position as an access point for care and information that can make a difference in communities across the country still fighting COVID-19.
“We really think this is the perfect opportunity to highlight the pharmacist’s role, to get the word out about HIV testing. As we’ve been talking about things related to self-care during the pandemic with face masks and various other things, it’s also a perfect opportunity to highlight PrEP, and how we can help patients be able to afford medications through programs like Ready, Set, PrEP,” McElya said.
Additionally, the initiative promotes the ongoing importance of HIV testing, which remains critically important as data have demonstrated that 1 in 7 individuals in the United States living with the virus remain unaware of being HIV-positive due to a lack of testing.
“The program really highlights the importance of HIV testing, knowing that that’s a critical component that will get us through this. Last May, the CDC talked about how the HIV testing rates were down across the country, even by upwards of 50% to 70% due to the pandemic, and that’s very concerning,” McElya said.
Through the program, Walgreens is encouraging anyone at risk of acquiring HIV to reach out to their local Walgreens pharmacy to discuss their options with pharmacists who are specifically trained to offer compassionate and confidential HIV care, with the option available to have these conversations in private consultation rooms or over the phone.
“We’re really trying to increase the focus around HIV testing knowing that if a patient does not know their HIV status, then they can’t get into treatment, or they can’t use preventative medications as well,” McElya said.
In order to spread awareness of the importance of HIV testing, Walgreens has partnered with organizations within the Greater Than AIDS initiative annually for National HIV Testing Day (NHTD) on June 27 over the past 11 years. However, in 2020, Walgreens did not host in-person events tied to NHTD due to the pandemic, which illustrates the importance of the need to bring access to individuals where they are during the pandemic.
“What we did is we shifted our program and ended up delivering 10,000 self-test kits so that patients could still be aware of their HIV status and receive information around PrEP as well,” McElya said. “So, the pandemic has really had a lot of effects, not only in decreasing the amount of HIV testing, but also by allowing us to shift our focus and make sure we’re responding to the needs of the community the way that we actually should.”