In August, Hurricane Harvey devastated cities along the Texas Gulf Coast. Over 32,000 people have been displaced by the catastrophic storm that submerged Houston, its surrounding areas and parts of Louisiana. Though the floods are slowly receding, residents -- including people living with HIV and their families -- are still reeling from the disaster left in Harvey's wake.
According to Nelson Vergel, a leading HIV treatment advocate and long-term HIV survivor living in Houston, many HIV clinics in the city were closed as of Aug. 30 because of the storm. Life-threatening floods had blocked most roadways, making it difficult for activists to connect with and help people in need.
Despite facing obstacles, the HIV community in Houston and across the country is mobilizing to help make sure people living with HIV who were impacted by the storm have access to antiretroviral medications, as well as to basic everyday supplies.
For People With HIV: Finding Medications and Care Post-Harvey
Displaced Texans living with HIV who have lost their medication can contact the Texas HIV Medication Program, run by the Texas Department of State Health Services (DSHS), for more information on how to obtain refills. According to a DSHS spokesperson, local areas have received a waiver to use emergency funds to replace lost antiretroviral medication. The Texas State Board of Pharmacies has also granted pharmacies the right to dispense a 30-day supply of emergency medication, including antiretrovirals, to people who need refills.
However, the Texas HIV Medication Program is limited in scope. According to the DSHS website, the program is still unable to deliver medications to the Houston, College Station, Beaumont or Victoria areas; however, deliveries are being made to Austin, San Antonio and cities near the Rio Grande Valley. That said, most participating and nonparticipating pharmacies are still closed in the affected area, creating another barrier to accessing antiretrovirals for people living with HIV who lost their medication during Hurricane Harvey.
Houston-based advocate Venita Ray, the public policy manager for Legacy Community Health, has been updating the HIV community through her Facebook page. According to two Aug. 29 posts, the AIDS Healthcare Foundation's clinics in Dallas and Fort Worth, Texas, as well as the TAN Healthcare Center in Beaumont, Texas, are open to take care of people living with HIV affected by the natural disaster.
Bret Camp, the Texas regional director for the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, told TheBody.com that both of the organization's Houston sites, as well as its clinics in Dallas and Ft. Worth, are open and providing care to people with HIV, and are reaching out to clients to assess their needs and make sure they're safe. A TAN Healthcare Center representative confirmed to TheBody.com that the Beaumont clinic is also operating and can provide a full range of care to people living with HIV in need of services.
Transgender, intersex and genderqueer Texans, including those living with HIV, may have additional challenges in accessing care and safe services after displacement. Houston-based services and advocacy group Transgender Foundation of America has therefore launched a community disaster relief fund. The trans, intersex and genderqueer community has "experienced significant difficulties in natural disaster situations. ... This fund will be used to help our historically underserved community recover from this catastrophic event," the foundation said in a statement.
In addition, the Montrose Center, which has served LGBTQ community members in Houston for nearly four decades, has set up the LGBTQ Disaster Relief Fund. On its donation site, it says funds will "help individuals and families begin to rebuild their lives through counseling, case management, direct assistance with shelf stable food, furniture, housing and more," adding that "The Center's dedicated case management team is on call to help homeless youth, seniors, people living with HIV, hate crime survivors, and those devastated by the storm."
U.S. HIV Community Sends Help From Outside Texas
HIV activists outside of Texas are working to spread the word about the state's medication assistance program, as well as to connect displaced Texans with individuals who can provide help and pool together supplies that can be distributed to evacuees. Bryan Jones, a peer educator, HIV activist and long-term HIV survivor based in Cleveland, Ohio, told TheBody.com that he has partnered with local advocates and businesses, as well as an emergency relief nonprofit in Missouri, to organize distribution drives that can be dispatched down to Dallas, as well as to the Houston area. Jones said they are collecting antiretroviral medications, gift card donations, basic everyday items (including blankets, soap, water, food, clothing and toiletries), and medical supplies such as bandages, creams, antiseptics and sanitizers.
"People living with HIV or AIDS are resilient individuals," Jones told TheBody.com. "Besides needing [antiretrovirals], we only require pretty much what any other person in distress needs."