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H.I.V. Survivors Confront Painful Memories and New Risks in Pandemic

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(This article is part of the California Today newsletter. Sign up here to get it delivered to your inbox.)

Today, we have another dispatch from the University of California, Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, written by Nick Roberts:

In a 15-minute trip to the pharmacy, Jim Morgan, 66, had touched the entrance door, the checkout counter and his face.

“I felt like I was covered in red ants because I felt so contaminated,” Mr. Morgan said.

When he returned to the car with his partner, Doug Bennett, 70, Mr. Morgan took off his mask, his gloves and his shirt, and started washing himself in hand sanitizer.

This was not the future Mr. Morgan and Mr. Bennett imagined when they moved from Northern California to the Coachella Valley town of Desert Hot Springs six years ago. They were seeking quieter lives, as well as refuge from illnesses they had both struggled with.

But for Mr. Morgan and many others who have migrated to the small towns around Palm Springs, the coronavirus pandemic is forcing them to grapple with painful memories of another deadly threat — the H.I.V.-AIDS crisis of the 1980s and ’90s. It was a frightening time, when they lost close friends and loved ones, and, for Mr. Morgan and Mr. Bennett, when they first learned they were H.I.V. positive.

[See The Times’s map of coronavirus cases by California county.]

The Palm Springs area is often described as 50 percent retired and 50 percent gay, with plenty of overlap. The city and its growing suburbs have become a hub for long-term survivors of H.I.V., with an estimated 10,000 to 15,000 people with H.I.V. living in Palm Springs and the surrounding Coachella Valley.

Long-term H.I.V. survivors, many of whom have severely compromised immune systems, are particularly vulnerable to Covid-19. Over time, the cocktails of medications used to keep the disease at bay can cause other illnesses. On top of that is the simple fact of aging.

“There is panic and anxiety,” Dr. Jill Gover, a psychologist at the Desert AIDS Project, said. “In this pandemic, once again, they are the highest-risk groups.”

Before Covid-19, Mr. Morgan and Mr. Bennett often held dinner parties at their home, nestled on a bluff overlooking Palm Springs. But that ended in February when Mr. Morgan began seeing stories about Covid-19. He had flashbacks to Mr. Bennett — his partner of 36 years — on the verge of death. For much of the 1990s, Mr. Bennett was bedridden with Reiter’s syndrome — a form of arthritis that inflamed his knees and elbows. His weight dipped below 100 pounds. “I got by from minute to minute,” Mr. Bennett said.

In March, just before California issued its stay-at-home order, Mr. Morgan posted a letter on Facebook and phoned friends to tell them he and Mr. Bennett were starting a home quarantine. Mr. Morgan counts each day spent in isolation on a calendar. They just passed Day 134.

After a career selling photographic film to Silicon Valley start-ups, Ric West, 67, moved to Palm Springs last fall. Mr. West has been living with H.I.V. since the 1990s, and his new doctor in Palm Springs ran a gamut of tests to better understand his health. In early June, he got an unwelcome diagnosis: He had aggressive prostate cancer that needed to be removed quickly.

“It took a while to hit then the reality of it all during this time of pandemic,” Mr. West said. “I felt very vulnerable, scared.”

The cancer was removed successfully last week and he is recovering at home. His boyfriend, Michael Felenchak, 34, is helping Mr. West quarantine as fully as possible, buying him groceries, cooking and cleaning around the house.

“He’s been my champion,” Mr. West said.

Mr. West’s friend and fellow H.I.V. survivor, Marty Fritz, 62, also received a diagnosis of prostate cancer in early July. His cancer is less aggressive than Mr. West’s, but the talk of quarantining and isolating throughout the Covid-19 pandemic has taken him back to the chaos of the AIDS crisis.

As AIDS spread, people lost jobs, housing, friends and their lives as the federal government dragged its feet in acknowledging the disease.

“Politicians were demanding doctors report us so they could quarantine us,” Mr. West said.

The lasting trauma of the H.I.V.-AIDS crisis pushed Mr. West into years of addiction to methamphetamines. When he was deciding where to retire, he looked for a community with dependable H.I.V. health services and a strong recovery community. Palm Springs turned out to be a perfect fit.

[Read about how enormous warehouses are transforming the Inland Empire — and the trend is accelerating in the pandemic.]

His recovery meetings have largely shifted to Zoom, and he’s realized his experience with H.I.V. helps him coach others through the fear of this current pandemic. He helps members of his recovery group process their anxiety over the coronavirus, and it’s been surprisingly helpful for him, too.

“It gives me purpose,” he said. “It makes everything that I went through back then not without purpose.”

We often link to sites that limit access for nonsubscribers. We appreciate your reading Times coverage, but we also encourage you to support local news if you can.

  • On Friday, amid a summer of uncertainty, Gov. Gavin Newsom finally announced school reopening guidelines that will force most districts — public and private — to begin the year remote-only. [The New York Times]

  • Inside Los Angeles Apparel, workers started disappearing. But the company didn’t tell them whether their colleagues had been infected with the coronavirus. Eventually, word spread that several of their co-workers had died. [The Los Angeles Times]

  • The City of Oakland agreed to pay almost $33 million to settle lawsuits on behalf of victims of the deadly Ghost Ship warehouse fire. [The New York Times]

  • If you want to get into cannabis but are “not super-interested in smoking anything,” you’re not alone: Edibles are selling like “special” hot cakes. [The New York Times]


California Today goes live at 6:30 a.m. Pacific time weekdays. Tell us what you want to see: CAtoday@nytimes.com. Were you forwarded this email? Sign up for California Today here and read every edition online here.

Jill Cowan grew up in Orange County, went to school at U.C. Berkeley and has reported all over the state, including the Bay Area, Bakersfield and Los Angeles — but she always wants to see more. Follow along here or on Twitter.

California Today is edited by Julie Bloom, who grew up in Los Angeles and graduated from U.C. Berkeley.

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