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SAAF Condemns COVID-19 Mask-Wearing Comparison to HIV/AIDS Prevention Strategies

Last week Arizona House Bill 2770 was passed, allowing for business owners to determine whether masks are required in their places of business. According to news reports, the bill’s sponsor, Representative Joseph Chaplik, persuaded the Arizona House to let businesses ignore mask mandates to stem COVID spread in part by arguing that they were not needed decades ago to stop the spread of AIDS.

As Southern Arizona’s largest AIDS service organization, the Southern Arizona AIDS Foundation (SAAF) believes it is vital to our community’s health and safety that we correct any false or misleading information that relates to reducing the transmission of COVID-19 and HIV/AIDS. Setting up a false equivalency between the spread of COVID-19 and the spread of HIV/AIDS is both disingenuous and dangerous. SAAF’s CEO, Ravi Grivois-Shah, comments: “While the current COVID-19 pandemic is often compared to the HIV epidemic, including the issues of community impact and individual isolation, Representative Chaplik’s use of the HIV pandemic in supporting legislation that would allow businesses to ignore COVID-19 mask mandates is careless.”

There are key differences between the spread of COVID-19 and the spread of HIV/AIDS. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), “COVID-19 is a respiratory disease that primarily spreads through respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs, sneezes, or talks.” Scientific studies show us that masks slow the spread of COVID-19, because they help keep people who are infected from spreading respiratory droplets to others when they breathe, cough, sneeze, or talk.

As a virus, HIV is transmitted through semen, blood, rectal fluids, vaginal fluids, and breast milk and cannot be spread through saliva. Because HIV/AIDS is not a respiratory disease, mask-wearing has never been a public health measure used to reduce its spread. Instead, through advances in science and technology, we have at our disposal several strategies to reduce the acquisition and transmission of HIV/AIDS including: HIV testing, pre- and post-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP and PEP), condoms, and antiretroviral treatments (treatment as prevention). These prevention strategies are at the core of the work we do at SAAF, and individuals may access any one of these prevention measures when they come to SAAF.

HIV/AIDS compromises the immune system of those people living with the virus, putting them at increased risk for serious or fatal complications of COVID-19. Without mask mandates, those people living with HIV/AIDS are unable to safely leave their homes and enter public spaces, as there is nothing in place to protect them from potentially contracting COVID-19. Many of our clients have been isolated for a year and counting as they stay at home to protect themselves. To falsely use their HIV status as a reason to remove the very measures that would ensure their safety adds insult to injury to people who are struggling with the effects of long-term social isolation that is needed in the absence of effective public health strategies to reduce the spread of COVID-19.

SAAF urges the community to continue following the CDC’s recommendations around mask-wearing in public spaces, even as restrictions are being lifted. For more information about COVID-19 and HIV/AIDS, please visit the CDC website.