Dr. Perry Halkitis, PhD, MS, MPH, is a public health psychologist and infectious disease epidemiologist. He is also a dean and professor at Rutgers School of Public Health Department of Biostatistics and Epidemiology and Department of Urban-Global Public Health, and he is the director at the Center for Health, Identity, Behavior, and Prevention Studies (CHIBPS). Halkitis uses a specific comparison point to estimate the dangers of COVID ahead of summer: In 42 years America has seen 750,000 deaths from HIV and AIDS versus the more-than-a-million deaths from COVID in about two years and four months.
Through Halkitis’ expertise readers will learn what to expect next from COVID for both the general population, the LGBTQ community, and the wider disparities among race, ethnicity, and class in a COVID-sick America.
COVID is rapidly terminating mass populations in a way the LGBTQ community hasn’t experienced in decades. Not everyone thinks this way. Many Americans who were ignorant to the mass death of LGBTQ Americans by HIV and AIDS throughout the decades will not come to this weighted comparison for answers. This ignorance is where disparity takes place, he says.
“I think it’s politics. I think politics, bad politics, kills, period,” Dr. Halkitis said. “Just like the political situation affected the lives of so many people in the 1980s and 1990s around AIDS, the political [COVID] decision making was often not scientific decision making and has caused the perpetuation of this disease and the deaths, the unnecessary deaths, in our country.”
To the doctor, there are lessons we didn’t learn from HIV and AIDS. They are lessons that would have helped ensure peoples’ quality of life in a time where COVID devastated the LGBTQ community.
Dr. Halkitis predicted infection to wane over the summer (which it has until recently) before a new COVID strain and case surge in respiratory-illness season increases hospitalizations and death. However, an increase in positive cases has already begun. The country has averaged between 80,000 and 120,000 new cases per day since June 1, according to NBC News’ count. He notes that the LGBTQ community isn’t immune to the next surge, but rather more susceptible to it.
“Whether we like it or not, you know, we [the LGBTQ community] as a population having lived through HIV, many of us — and having seen the devastation of viruses, and having some more faith in science, perhaps more than the general population — are also more likely to be vaccinated,” said Dr. Halkitis.
The LGBTQ population, he says, is very diverse in terms of class, race, ethnicities, (dis)abilities, sexual identities, and gender identities. The community doesn’t all react to these diseases, or handle these diseases, in the same way.
“I do think we’re going to see [a] difference, again, by race and ethnicity just because of the disparities that exist in terms of economic conditions and privilege and power that is manifesting in [the LGBTQ] population too,” said the researcher.
In his co-authored study on employment loss, Employment Loss as a Result of COVID-19: a Nationwide Survey at the Onset of COVID-19 in US LGBTQ Populations, Dr. Halkitis concludes among 1,090 respondents throughout the country that LGBTQ employment has been undermined due to the pandemic. But as with the general population, those of multiple minority identities have been (and will be) most severely affected. Job loss was reported at 42% of participants between the ages of 18-29 and at 24% in participants ages 30–39. Among racial/ethnic groups, job loss within Indigenous and Black non-Hispanic groups were highest with 45% and 43%, respectively. These percentages changed if participants had (at least) a bachelor’s degree, were HIV-negative, or lived in the Northeast.
In preparation for another wave there are a few solutions Dr. Halkitis offers. One is the Equality Act, which if passed would extend federal protections to LGBTQ people to prohibit discrimination based on sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, and intersex status in a wide variety of areas including public accommodations and facilities, education, employment, housing, and credit.
Another solution highlighted in his study is the wider need for national data collection on sexual orientation and gender identity for unemployment as well as the need for substantive policies, such as expanding unemployment, to assist in the economic recovery for populations most affected by the pandemic.
Lastly is messaging, he said. There isn’t comprehensive messaging with a sense of urgency on COVID vaccine development. Although the FDA recommends including omicron subvariants BA.4 and BA.5 in fall COVID boosters, there is not a general consensus on health and wellness related to COVID. Instead, there is a divided narrative aiding the continuation of mass death.
“Let me give you my example of why [the federal government’s messaging] is so annoying to me,” said Dr. Halkitis. “When the federal government said, ‘You know, you should probably get a second booster, but you know, just for people who are 50, and those who are immunocompromised,’ excuse my language, that’s bull***t because you know if those folks are going to need a booster everybody needs a booster.”
Referring to mask mandates, Dr. Halkitis says, “There is zero tolerance for that. The best way for people to stay safe is keep vaccines up to date.”