Emergency Preparedness: What Do People with HIV Need to Know?
All Americans should have a plan for what to do during a hurricane, wildfire, or other emergency. But for people with HIV, it’s especially important to be prepared.
Plan ahead. To stay healthy, people with HIV must take HIV medicine (called antiretroviral therapy or ART) exactly as prescribed and get and keep an undetectable viral load—a level of HIV in your blood so low that a standard lab test can’t detect it. A natural disaster or other emergency may make it harder for you to do this. To avoid interruptions in your HIV treatment, ask your health care provider if you can get a 30-day (or longer) emergency prescription refill of your HIV medicine. Some states permit coverage for advanced refills of prescription medicine during an emergency, but laws vary by state. Learn more about Emergency Prescription Laws in your state.
Make a list of medicines and gather other medical paperwork. Keep a list of your HIV medicines and any others you take, their dosage amounts, and frequency, and a summary of your HIV treatment history in case you have to see another provider temporarily. Make sure you have a copy of your insurance card and the phone numbers for your providers and pharmacies.
Communicate with your provider. Talk to your healthcare provider about what you should do if you run out of medicine due to an emergency. In addition, in the event of an outbreak of a disease (like the flu), ask your provider whether you need to take specific precautions because you have HIV. See information about COVID-19 below.
Follow safety guidelines. Be aware that some types of disasters may affect air and water quality—which can be even harder on people with HIV and others with weakened immune systems. If you have HIV, disruptions in the availability of food and clean water can increase your risk for opportunistic infections. If proper sanitation and hygiene are an issue, it’s important to follow proper food and water safety guidelines. See CDC’s information on keeping food and water safe after a disaster or emergency. Also follow local guidance about exercise and going outside on days with poor air quality. See CDC’s information on protecting yourself during wildfire season.
Wash your hands. Regular handwashing with soap and clean water is the best way to remove germs that can make you and others sick. If you don’t have soap and clean water, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol.
Stay up to date on your vaccines. Make sure your vaccines for infections and illnesses such as tetanus and seasonal flu are up to date. Know the date of your last tetanus shot in case of injury in an emergency. (Learn more about COVID-19 vaccines, below.)
Learn how you can get emergency prescription assistance. The Department of Health and Human Service’s Emergency Prescription Assistance Program may be activated after a disaster. It is a free service that helps people in a federally-identified disaster who do not have health insurance get the prescription drugs, vaccinations, medical supplies, and equipment that they need. Visit PHE.gov/EPAP for details.
COVID-19 and Emergency Preparedness
The COVID-19 pandemic has made preparing for and responding to disasters and emergencies more complicated, and this makes being informed and having a personal emergency plan even more important.
Get vaccinated for COVID-19, including a booster shot. CDC advises that people who have certain medical conditions, including HIV, are more likely to get severely ill from COVID-19 and should get COVID-19 vaccines, including booster shots. Some people who have moderately or severely compromised immune systems, including those with advanced or untreated HIV, should receive an additional primary dose of COVID-19 vaccine. If you have questions about getting a COVID-19 vaccine, you should talk to your healthcare providers for advice.
CDC also recommends additional actions for people with chronic diseases, including:
- Develop a disaster plan, and create an emergency “go kit” that includes personal items, disinfectant wipes and spray, bar or liquid soap, hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol, and multiple, clean masks for everyone age 2 or older. Masks should have two or more layers and fit snugly against your face. Children under 2 should not wear masks. You can also include medicines and medical supplies, and copies of your COVID-19 vaccination record card and other medical records.
- Do not delay getting emergency care for your underlying medical condition because of COVID-19. Emergency departments urgent care, clinics, and your health provider or doctor have infection prevention plans in place to protect you from getting COVID-19 if you need care.
- Do not avoid seeking shelter with friends or relatives or at a disaster shelter, if needed. Emergency managers, shelter managers, and public health professionals are taking measures to reduce the possible spread of COVID-19 among people who seek safety in a disaster shelter during severe weather events. Follow CDC recommendations to help you shelter safely during the COVID-19 pandemic and remember your shelter location may be different this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
- Tell shelter staff if you have any medical needs, including medicines that need to be refrigerated.
- Take steps to protect yourself and others from COVID-19 while you are away from your home. Wearing a mask is especially important when social distancing is difficult.
Visit CDC’s Natural Disasters, Severe Weather, and COVID-19 for more information on how the COVID-19 pandemic can affect disaster preparedness and recovery and what you can do to keep safe.
Resources to Help You Plan Ahead
There are many resources to help you prepare for emergencies and disasters:
- CDC’s Emergency Preparedness and Response site has information on how to keep yourself and your loved ones safe.
- Ready.gov offers tips and tools to help you plan ahead for many different kinds of disasters and emergencies.
- The U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s State Homeland Security and Emergency Services page provides links to homeland security and public safety websites in your state.
- SAMHSA's Taking Care of Your Behavioral Health During an Infectious Disease Outbreak provides information about social distancing, quarantine, and isolation during COVID-19 and tips for caring for your behavioral health during these experiences.
- The FDA’s Safe Drug Use after a Natural Disaster offers information on the use of medicines before and after natural disasters.
Help with Recovery
During and after a disaster, it is natural to experience different and strong emotions. Coping with these feelings and getting help when you need it will help you, your family, and your community recover from a disaster.
The Disaster Distress Helpline supports people who are coping with the after effects of a disaster. Call or text 1-800-985-5990. Or visit: disasterdistress.samhsa.gov.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration also offers many resources to help Americans who are recovering from an emergency or disaster.
- Tips for Survivors: Coping with Grief After a Disaster or Traumatic Event offers information about grief, the grieving process, and resources to help with grief.
- Tips for Survivors: Coping with Anger After a Disaster or Other Traumatic Event discusses anger and offers tips for calming yourself.
- Tips for Survivors of a Disaster or Other Traumatic Event: Coping with Retraumitization discusses the signs and symptoms of retraumatization and how to manage it.