By Phil Yaeger, Executive Director & CEO, Radiant Health Centers
The year 2020 will go down as one of the most challenging years in modern history, remembered for the deaths of legendary figures like Kobe Bryant and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a global economic crisis and a pandemic that has led to over one million deaths.
Many are clamoring for simpler times like the 1980s, when social media hadn’t overwhelmed society, wildfires weren’t ravaging the entire western United States and a live music venue packed with shoulder-to-shoulder attendees was an ordinary sight. But the 1980s have some unfortunate similarities to 2020.
The first cases of AIDS were identified in 1981, and by 1985, the United States faced a full-blown AIDS public health crisis. Just like the COVID-19 crisis of 2020, the 1980s AIDS epidemic was a politically-charged public health issue: today, wearing a mask has become a political statement, while in 1985, more than half of the country’s adults supported quarantining AIDS patients, and one in seven favored tattooing those living with AIDS so they could be easily identified. Despite their similarity, the illnesses’ histories show us a tragic difference, too: the bare fact that an AIDS diagnosis was and is stigmatized to a degree that a COVID diagnosis, however serious and concerning, is not.
In challenging times, people come together to help one another and move forward as a society. In 1985, during a period when the larger part of American society shunned people battling AIDS, a small group of volunteers formed an organization called AIDS Services Foundation Orange County to help people with AIDS die with dignity and compassion. Over the years, that organization evolved into Radiant Health Centers (RHC), an Orange County non-profit that provides comprehensive social services and a growing list of medical services to people living with HIV and their loved ones, as well as the broader LGBTQ+ community.
Now, more than 35 years after its founding, Radiant Health Centers is adapting to yet another public health crisis. As the fallout of COVID-19 evolves by the day, Radiant Health Centers is pivoting how it delivers its programs and services to accommodate changing needs. March brought a sharp spike in demand for mental health services as the community tried to understand and process the rapid change in daily life. In April, public shutdowns and the resulting furloughs and layoffs increased need for Radiant Health Centers’ rent assistance program. In May, when the community tried to slowly transition back toward normalcy, people turned to our transportation services and nutritional centers. By June, it was obvious that healthcare needs could not stay on hold indefinitely, and while Radiant Health Centers’ medical services continued throughout the pandemic shutdowns, its tele-health medical services became a lifeline for many in the community.
These dramatic changes have led Radiant Health Centers to completely reinvent the way it delivers its services. One such service is HIV testing. About six people in Orange County are diagnosed with HIV every week, and even during a pandemic, it’s vital for patients to know their status so that they can take steps to prevent the spread. As the only organization in Orange County focusing on providing the LGBTQ+ community with no-cost HIV testing, Radiant Health Centers plays a central role in providing patients that crucial information and access to care. Recognizing that social distancing protocols make in-clinic testing challenging, Radiant Health Centers developed and deployed a confidential at-home HIV testing program within days of the initial shutdown. Patients who participate in the program receive home HIV testing kits by mail, free of charge, and have access to an easy, comprehensive experience that includes accurate test results, emotional support, and healthcare counseling. This new experience includes discreet packaging, a trash bag for careful test disposal, guidance videos, and phone calls with health educators so that patients can understand the results and next steps.
To continue providing innovative services, Radiant also launched drive-up HIV testing so that community members can make an appointment to be tested by an expert for those preferring an in-person experience. But with a continued possibility of additional restriction, Radiant Health Centers is taking steps to ensure that patients still have access to the vital support that they’ve come to expect from the provider, regardless of circumstances. For those seeking group counseling, Radiant has created a teleconference counseling program via Zoom, and established a network of volunteers to deliver food to clients who utilize the Centers’ food pantry service but are unable to travel to the pantry itself.
As access to health care for the most vulnerable and at-risk continues to be threatened, the community needs innovative medical service solutions more than ever. It hasn’t been easy, but thanks to Radiant Health Centers’ dedicated staff and insightful board, the organization has proven that nothing can prevent it from helping Orange County’s citizens – especially its HIV+ and LGBTQ+ communities – live long, fulfilling and healthy lives. No stranger to adversity, Radiant Health Centers is the largest provider of LGBTQ+ healthcare in Orange County and, even in a pandemic, is continuing to work towards its goal of eventually building a Federally Qualified Health Care Center facility.
To learn more about Radiant Health Centers or to find out how to donate or volunteer, visit www.RadiantHealthCenters.org.