The rapid spread of COVID-19 has stirred up memories of another scary, highly contagious disease’s arrival on the North Shore: AIDS.
In 1988, when I was the city editor of the Beverly Times (now part of The Salem News), the public relations specialist at Beverly Hospital gave me an extra nudge to attend a meeting at the hospital. I don’t remember the nature of the meeting; to be honest, most of the content was over my head and not relevant to me.
But my ears perked up when someone mentioned HIV. It sounded as if a patient might have died of AIDS, and, if that were so, it would mark the first death by acquired immunodeficiency syndrome in our local hospital. After the meeting, I confirmed that a patient with AIDS had died there earlier that month.
As I wrote a page one article for the next day’s paper (I don’t remember the date), I became aware of how little I knew about AIDS. It had been present in the United States for at least seven years, since 1981, but was viewed as a disease of gay men and heroin addicts, two demographics that while present on the North Shore were not visible in the communities our paper served. So, to us, AIDS was literally out of sight, out of mind.
Shortly after my article ran, the editorial board, led by Paul Briand, embarked on a special report, called “AIDS in Our Midst,” to inform readers about the disease and how it was impacting lives on the North Shore. All reporters, photographers and editors contributed. The headlines of the articles give a glimpse of where we were in terms of our understanding of AIDS at the time:
AIDS fear in suburbs is real
AIDS bombshell on the horizon
Life with a death sentence: Illness leaves addict isolated
Wife, children feel sting of association
Hard choices made in attempt to stop AIDS spread
AIDS test still not perfect
Looking back, it’s hard to believe that in 1988, seven years after the New York Times published an article about a “rare cancer” among 41 gay men, our nation’s understanding of the disease was still developing. For instance, between the time we finished our reporting and the special report went to press, researchers dismissed the theory of “AIDS-related complex” (ARC), which suggested that in some cases, HIV might not develop into full-blown AIDS.
To say that our national leaders were slow to respond to the crisis is an understatement, and if you have never read about the LGBTQ+ community’s struggle to bring the issue to the forefront, now would be a good time to do so. You could start with Mark S. King’s article, “Stop comparing the response to coronavirus to the early response to AIDS. It’s insulting (LGBTQnation.com).” He writes, “There is no comparison to a new viral outbreak that might kill people society actually values, like your grandmother and her friends in the nursing home.”
In our 1988 special report, reporter John Mooney described how difficult it was to find even one person willing to speak publicly about having AIDS because of the social stigma over fears of spreading the disease.
Reporter Lisa Kosan tracked down the hard numbers: As of July 1 (1988), Essex County reported a total of 89 cases of AIDS, compared to 707 in Suffolk County (Boston and surrounding area). A year before, there were 33 confirmed cases in Essex County, so the number had more than doubled. The statistics included anyone who was treated for AIDS anywhere in the country and gave an Essex County address.
The Visiting Nurse Association of the North Shore had seen eight AIDS patients in the previous 21/2 years, but spokeswoman Karen Carney said that number might be low because many patients with AIDS treated in homes may not have been diagnosed. The VNA was expecting numbers of AIDS patients to rise as more and more patients, then in Boston hospitals and elsewhere, returned home to die.
The AIDS crisis was invisible to North Shore residents, Edward Marakovitz, executive director of the North East Health Planning Council, pointed out, because Boston-area hospitals were handling the brunt of the acute care and emergency caseloads.
In 1988, when we published “AIDS in Our Midst,” more than 16,000 Americans had died of AIDS in the previous year. That number rose annually until 1995, when it peaked at just under 42,000 lives lost. That’s when the antiretroviral therapies finally became available. Two years later, the number was back down to 1988 levels. Altogether, more than 700,000 Americans have died of AIDS, and more than 13,000 still die of AIDS each year.
As I write these words, we are bracing ourselves for “the worst two weeks of our lives,” as the coronavirus pandemic comes crashing down on our healthcare system, taking many thousands of lives. While it took AIDS seven years to reach the North Shore, COVID-19 needed less than seven weeks to top 1,500 cases and 24 deaths in Essex County. Death predictions for COVID-19 range from 100,000 to 240,000 Americans; the percentages of deaths per COVID-19 cases vary widely, mainly because we have no idea of how many people have the virus but show no symptoms. The numbers go up, of course, by age and health condition, but I haven’t seen any predictions over 8 percent for the most vulnerable groups. That’s a far cry from the nearly 100 percent death rate for AIDS patients in the early years.
COVID-19 is no respecter of persons. It doesn’t care who you are, where you’ve been, or what you’ve done. The slightest slip-up can turn fatal. That’s scary, but at least we’re all in this together.
Steve Crowe lives in Beverly.