African American AIDS Task Force: Fighting HIV/AIDS During a Global Pandemic

While COVID-19 has garnered the majority of the news headlines since March, the fight against other deadly diseases hasn’t ended.

At the African American AIDS Task Force (AAATF) in Minneapolis, the organization’s seven employees continue to provide vital services to those living with or at risk of acquired immunodeficiency syndrome, commonly referred to as AIDS.

The AAATF is located at the corner of Franklin and Pillsbury, south of Downtown Minneapolis in the Minnesota Church Center, and was incorporated in 1994. The organization, like so many others across the state and the country, took an economic hit due to COVID-19.

In August, AAATF Executive Director Gwendolyn Velez got word the organization had received a Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loan. The funds have helped the AAATF secure capacity so that it may continue to provide services for its roughly 130 case management clients.

In particular, the money has allowed the AAATF to move to a remote environment while still effectively supporting clients.

“We needed to free up money so that we could upgrade all of our IT system to conform to this new environment that we’re in,” said Velez.

Communities of color are disproportionally affected by AIDS across Minnesota and the country. Black Americans make up just 12% of the national population, yet they account for 44% of the deaths related to HIV Off Site Link. The Human Immunodeficiency Virus, or HIV, can cause AIDS if not treated.

Stats from the Minnesota Department of Health Off Site Link state that 61% of new HIV cases were among communities of color in 2019.

Velez speaks frankly when asked about these disparities.

“Generally there is mistrust in the African American community regarding medical systems – the care is not the same, it’s not equitable,” said Velez.

Some of that mistrust likely stems from incidents like the infamous Tuskegee Syphilis Study Off Site Link, a 40-year clinical study in which organizers lied to its poor, African American test subjects about the care they were receiving. The study, conducted by the United States government, falsely told study subjects they would get free healthcare; as a result, many died.

A recent Wall Street Journal article Off Site Link cites a Gallup poll that revealed “four in ten nonwhite Americans” wouldn’t get a COVID-19 vaccine if it were ready before Election Day.

The AAATF provides a number of preventative, educational and HIV direct services. These include HIV testing, support groups for those living with HIV, access to discounted medications, transportation for core medical services and medical case management.

During the pandemic, the AAATF has been giving out gift cards to clients so they can obtain hand sanitizer and other supplies to prevent COVID-19.  The organization is also providing cloth face coverings to all of its clients.  In addition, the AAATF is providing HIV home test kits for individuals to use under the supervision of an AAATF staff member in order to mitigate the risk of spreading the coronavirus. Ordinarily the AAATF would conduct HIV testing by mouth swabbing or blood draws.

Some have compared the current pandemic to what happened during the AIDS crisis of the early 1980s. Velez sees one similarity.

“(The two are similar) only in the unknown part, and how people are reacting on some levels,” she said. “There were a lot of unknowns (during the AIDS epidemic) and that’s where the fear comes from. When you get to the other side of the fear about things is when it starts to normalize. But right now we’re not there with COVID-19.”

While COVID-19 has made the AAATF pivot, its mission still remains the same: to provide culturally specific HIV prevention, education and services to people of African descent who are living with or at risk of HIV.

“We have clients of every culture in our organization and we treat everyone as an individual according to their unique needs,” said Velez.