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World AIDS Day: Santa Clara Health Officials Reflect On 4 Decades Battling HIV, Lessons Applied To COVID-19

SAN JOSE (KPIX 5) – Santa Clara County commemorated the 33rd World Aids Day, reflecting on the lives lost over the past four decades, but also lessons that have been applied to the current COVID-19 pandemic.

"It's become even more important than ever to celebrate our victories over illness and death and division," said Dr. Sarah Rudman, Santa Clara County Assistant Health Officer.

World AIDS Day, celebrated every December 1 since 1988, seeks to honor the lives lost to the disease.

Members of the county's HIV commission raised a flag to honor the 6,778 people diagnosed with HIV, and 4,956 people diagnosed with AIDS since the battle against the epidemic began in the early 1980s.

In Santa Clara County, 165 people were diagnosed with HIV in 2019, and 115 in 2020. Rudman said the 2020 decrease was likely due to patients who were discouraged to test for HIV because of the ongoing COVID pandemic.

Dr. Rudman, who leads the county's STD and HIV prevention and control program, said current day vaccine technology can trace its roots to technological breakthroughs resulting from AIDS research.

"The scientific advancements we saw that have helped us come so far in COVID, where we have safe and effective vaccines available to everyone, those advancements were built on the backbone of investment in HIV research over the last 40 years. Without that investment, we would never have had such rapid advances to help keep us safe today," said Rudman.

The county's COVID strategy to step up testing and vaccine outreach to the Latino community, economically disadvantaged neighborhoods, farmworkers, and other essential workers, was "straight from the HIV playbook".

"The exact same populations who were disproportionately hit by HIV year after year, especially communities of color, we saw hit again by COVID. And that's one more reason why, in addition to advancing our scientific knowledge and making sure everyone has access to those interventions, we have to battle the inequity itself," said Rudman.

"We have pushed hard and forward on equity. We worked to make sure we left no person behind, no neighborhood behind, no household behind," said County Supervisor Cindy Chavez.

Dr. Marty Fenstersheib, now the county's Vaccine Officer, recalled his early days of battling AIDS in the South Bay.

"It really hits home to me as I think about the first cases, back in 1981. And I was doing the math and it's like this is 40 years since the first cases," said Fenstersheib.

Would the world still be dealing with COVID cases 40 years from now? According to Fenstersheib, health care systems across the planet will likely be managing COVID cases for the foreseeable future.

"To me it's like the flu. I think it's going to be around for quite some time. I don't see it ending. I think we'll be living with COVID. So we'll probably get booster shots on a regular basis down the road. It'll be part of our lives I think for some time," said Fenstersheib.

"I think the work we've done in the last 40 years to battle HIV have taught us to trust science, to make rapid advancements, to invest in our public health infrastructure, and to share information widely, as soon as we have it. It's going to carry us through the next 40 years. So we're not only having different conversations about HIV and COVID, but the next disease we have to battle we're even more prepared to handle," said Rudman.

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