I attended the virtual USCHA conference this year put on by NMAC, supported by too many sponsors to name and I want to start by saying this: I love us. "Us" as in the HIV community. The advocates. The Healthcare providers. The researchers, scientists, community partners and pharmaceutical companies. All of our allies and partners. Definitely those of us living with HIV. I hold a special place in my heart and head for those who are not only living with HIV, but who do the work as well. I know before I stepped out, open and loud, it meant a tremendous amount to me to see the people who were doing the work. Even though I knew I wanted to - I didn't think I could. It meant something to know that someone was fighting for me and trying to make things better for people like me. The conference was a big example of that - a reminder that we are never as alone as we feel, despite shame and stigma and it made me feel good to be a part of it.
When I tell you there was something for everyone?!?! There was something for everyone!! Representation for minority groups often left under-recognized: Women, Black people, Indigenous folks, and *Pacific Islanders and *People of Trans Experience and *Asian people (*who are typically done a disservice because their numbers are smaller than the rest of us) all had a voice here.
There were plenary sessions (where everyone was invited to sit and listen as a group as opposed to the smaller breakout sessions) every day, twice a day. Morning and afternoon, plus, as a nice touch, a morning devotional for those of faith to be able to start the day on a positive note. The opening plenary laid out President Biden's federal plan for the HIV fight. I was much encouraged to hear it includes provisions for decreasing criminalization, a focus on equity, and recognizes racism as a health crisis. It is a whole society approach addressing social determinants of health including poverty and unemployment, things much at the forefront considering the added impact of Covid-19. It's calling for accountability grounded in human rights and finally recognizes the need to include populations like sex workers and immigrants under the umbrella of resource equitability. It is a bold, somewhat lofty plan that aims to end the epidemic in the US by 2030. Lofty; but I'm all in.
A common theme that stuck with me as a takeaway was community impact, involvement and diversity. Another reason I love us. There is such a focus on making sure no one gets left behind, even as we work to ensure we reduce new diagnoses to end the epidemic. I was unexpectedly invited to sit on a listening session with NIH (National Institutes of Health) and OAR (Office of AIDS Research) and again, I was thankful that many of the panel was focused on involving our communities (people living with the virus) in research enterprises for future planning in areas like HIV over the course of our life span, long acting injectable treatments, cure strategies and research participation, and how that information gets distributed. I know it's easy to feel like no one is listening, but they are! None of it is simple and no goal affecting this many people can be reached in one way alone, but it's hard to go wrong with working together as a starting point. What I loved most was the passion in it. There was no doubt any of these people weren't invested in these outcomes and the inclusion of those living with HIV in those outcomes.
There were many breakout sessions and workshop institutes for additional learning. These were formatted as both fact sharing presentations and more conversation structured. The conversational ones tend to be my favorite. Covering a range of topics from understanding how Federal funds are used and dispersed to battling stigma, medication modalities and tips on Harm Reduction. For every measure or space regarding life with HIV you can think of, there are two other people seeing the picture differently and also contributing to it. It is fascinating to see. I attended a session on Faith and Church as it related to black women, there was another session on addressing trauma and yet another on leveraging some of the lessons of Covid. Trust me, I'd be here all day trying to cover them all, not to mention the posters and abstracts available to view. These are typically peer reviewed and/or peer worked research. Poster and abstracts are how the methods and outcomes are illustrated and presented. I liked that even though we were virtual you could still "chat" with the poster presenters to ask questions on their research and conclusions. Here again, a myriad of topics including housing, testing outcomes, Covid and how it affected the need for telehealth and how people responded to it. There were over twenty-four posters presented to give you an idea of how wide the topic range was. There also was a screening of the documentary on Anthony Fauci. I found it to be insightful and relatable on a human level and would recommend people see it.
On the fun side of things they had virtual lounges available where you could go and relax and chat with other conference goers. It was pretty neat actually. The had rooms for PLWH, those 50+, Trans, and Youth and NMAC's ESCALATE (Ending Stigma through Collaboration and Lifting All to Empowerment) and ELEVATE (Engage Leadership through Employment, Validation, and Advancing Transformation and Equity) programs. As you probably know from attending parties or work functions, the conversations are always the juiciest and most lively at "the water cooler". I'm being tongue-in-cheek, but I did get some valuable reminders in those mini-breaks. We (including you in your life) have to remember to take care of ourselves and find that work/life balance, and every now and then do a temperature check to make sure we are still doing what we do for the right reasons. It's okay to lean on each other from time to time and we are stronger together. A network makes the care net work (see what I did there? LOL)
Like most things in the last couple of years, all of this was through a virtual lens. It would have been terrific to be around everyone in person and get that boost you get from people when everyone is full of energy and excitement, but that's not really a complaint. I was grateful to have been able to attend and absorb. I'm keeping an eye towards next year, and applying all I learned this time in the coming year. In November of last year, I committed that I would step up and try to be involved with the HIV community, with my community - as much as possible. This final conference of the year was the pièce de résistance in that goal.
Remember you matter. Be well.