The COVID‐19 pandemic reached the African continent in less than three months from when the first cases were reported from mainland China. As COVID‐19 preparedness and response plans were rapidly instituted across sub‐Saharan Africa, many governments and donor organizations braced themselves for the unknown impact the COVID‐19 pandemic would have in under‐resourced settings with high burdens of PLHIV. The potential negative impact of COVID‐19 in these countries is uncertain, but is estimated to contribute both directly and indirectly to the morbidity and mortality of PLHIV, requiring countries to leverage existing HIV care systems to propel COVID‐19 responses, while protecting PLHIV and HIV program gains. In anticipation of COVID‐19‐related disruptions, PEPFAR promptly established guidance to rapidly adapt HIV programs to maintain essential HIV services while protecting recipients of care and staff from COVID‐19. This commentary reviews PEPFAR’s COVID‐19 technical guidance and provides country‐specific examples of program adaptions in sub‐Sahran Africa.
The COVID‐19 pandemic may pose significant risks to the continuity of HIV services, especially in countries with high HIV prevalence and weak and over‐burdened health systems. Although there is currently limited understanding of how COVID‐19 affects PLHIV, it is imperative that public health systems and academic centers monitor the impact of COVID‐19 on PLHIV. The general principles of the HIV program adaptation guidance from PEPFAR prioritize protecting the gains in the HIV response while minimizing in‐person home and facility visits and other direct contact when COVID‐19 control measures are in effect. PEPFAR‐supported clinical, laboratory, supply chain, community and data reporting systems can play an important role in mitigating the impact of COVID‐19 in sub‐Saharan Africa.
As community transmission of COVID‐19 continues and the number of country cases rise, fragile health systems may be strained. Utilizing the adaptive, data‐driven program approaches in facilities and communities established and supported by PEPFAR provides the opportunity to strengthen the COVID‐19 response while protecting the immense gains spanning HIV prevention, testing and treatment reached thus far.