Virtual health services bring new challenges for LGBTQ+ community

Published On March 29, 2021 | By Kelly Luke | COVID-19, Life

Access to health services for queer folk have been limited, and/or moved to virtual platforms because of COVID-19.

The Pride flag flies outside Toronto’s Old City Hall. The Toronto Catholic District School Board has voted in favour of flying the rainbow flag at schools to celebrate Pride Month in June. Photo credit: City of Toronto & toronto.ca

While virtual access to health services has increased accessibility to these needs, many are finding new challenges that moving online has imposed.

Michael Fanous, an HIV activist and founder of MedsEXPERT Clinic and Pharmacy, adapted their services enabling them to provide care to clients virtually.

For three years, clients province-wide are able to access LGBTQ+ services from the country’s first queer-owned and focused pharmacy. The pharmacy, located in the Church and Wellesley village in Toronto, offers free delivery of medication to anyone across the province.

Fanous said the MedsEXPERT Clinic and Pharmacy, like many others, had to adapt because of stay-at-home orders and the enforcement of capacity limitations because of COVID-19.

Moving in-person care to meet accommodations through online Zoom calls enabled them to reach clientele from as far as Northern Ontario. Some clients are still requesting to be able to come in for in-person appointments, they said.

“They may have lost their job, and they’re living with dad and mom in the [suburbs] and they don’t feel comfortable discussing, you know, their HIV, or their trans hormones when they’re in earshot of their family,” Fanous said.

“So, some of our clients have asked that we continue to see them in-person and we do, and we totally understand that,” they said.

A second challenge, because of the pandemic, was the limiting access to HIV and sexually transmitted disease (STI) testing, Fanous said.

Viral swabs used for throat and rectal testing of STIs, like gonorrhea and chlamydia, are the same swabs used for COVID-19 testing. This resulted in a shortage of swabs available for public health STI testing, they said.

In addition, HIV test results were slowed and took about two weeks for clients to receive, they said. This contributed increased anxiety among clients awaiting confirmation — as well as increased risk to sexual partners as the infection could have been spread unknowingly during the waiting period, Fanous said.

“A lot of our LGBTQ clients who relied on us for queer-competent care, they could no longer get their STIs diagnosed so that saw a rise,” Fanous said. “We saw an increase in syphilis and other STIs of about 17 per cent over the last year.”

In addition to limitations within medical health services, the mental health of members within the queer community is also being affected.

The Klub Community Wellness Centre in Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., is a 2SLGBTQ+ BIPOC non-profit space that hosts the Rainbow Klub youth group of members of the aforementioned acronym.

Lucia Luciani, a member of the Board of Directors for The Klub, is concerned for the effects that isolation had on the mental health of queer youth because of COVID-19.

“It was definitely hard on the children. When they’re not able to meet with their other queer friends, that one safety circle or like group,” Luciani said.

Luciani explains that because of COVID-19, a lot of LGBTQ+ youth may be stuck at home where their environment may be negative, and difficult to navigate.

“There’s really nowhere for them to go especially if they’re trans,” Luciani said.

Luciani said her experience growing up in Sault Ste. Marie, and coming out as trans during her time studying in university was a huge learning curve.

Resources and information catering to members of the 2SLGBTQ+ community were not easily accessible, and representation was limited, she said.

For many youths in her community, learning about queer gender and sexual identities occurred for the first time when Luciani herself had given an informative presentation to youth in her community.

Luciani believes education is an imperative tool that can both combat discrimination in her community, as well as help other young folks like her find their identity and become better in-tune with who they are.

“Just try to educate yourself on things that you may not otherwise think twice [about]. Like, try to challenge yourself to do better, ’cause no one is ever perfect, like, everyone can always do better,” Luciani said.

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