When health care administrator Cyndee Burton considers the toll of COVID-19, she’s reminded of her days treating HIV/AIDS patients in an intensive care unit in the 1980s, when the disease was harshly stigmatized as a “gay plague.”

Working at a Baptist hospital at the time, she recalls how nurses were allowed to opt out of treating those patients, a decision that’s always troubled her.

“I’m sure for some of them it was just frightening. We didn’t know a lot of things then, but for some of them it was absolutely a judgment call,” said Burton, now the administrator and a founding member of Matthew 25 AIDS Services, a clinic based in Henderson with locations in Owensboro, Evansville, Ind., and now Bowling Green.

It was that stigmatization that allowed the public to write off the severity of the virus, enabling it to spread unchecked and claim thousands of more lives. Burton sees a parallel in COVID-19, with the messaging around it framing older Americans and those with other chronic health conditions as uniquely susceptible.

It’s enabled complacency among many, Burton said. Channeling that false sense of security, her 15-year-old grandchild recently asked her “So, is this COVID thing all over?”

In the mid-1990s, when Burton was a member of a gay and lesbian-affirming United Church of Christ congregation, Matthew 25 began as a volunteer group with the goal of helping HIV-positive people.

“In that setting, there were numerous men who had AIDS and had access to nothing,” Burton said, recalling how their only option was to drive hours away to Indianapolis, Nashville or St. Louis for treatment. Many were too sick to make the trip.

The volunteers’ outreach efforts started with a support group for the men and with home visits, Burton said.

“People in the congregation would get groceries and help pay bills and just help them stay in their homes because where were they going to go?” Burton said.

Later, word spread about new experimental drugs in use in places like New York, Chicago and California.

“Just because you live in rural America should not determine whether you have access to medication,” Burton said.

That’s when the group split from the church and started pursuing funding under the federal Ryan White CARE Act, named after an Indiana teenager who was barred from returning to school after he contracted HIV while undergoing treatment for his hemophilia.

“We started care in a garage,” Burton said, recalling the clinic’s eventual opening in 2001. “My dad came and put an exam room and a waiting room in, and that’s how we started providing care to the first 50 patients that we had, just determination and hard work.”

Burton remembers stepping across a picket line of protesters to go to work. She also remembers how short-staffed they were, and how many hats she had to wear.

“I was like the leader and the nurse and the phlebotomist. You just did whatever had to be done. We had a very small staff,” she said.

“Now, we have 600 patients and Bowling Green will be our fourth location,” Burton said.

After securing a state grant last year, Matthew 25 opened a new office in March, when states across the country began reporting their first confirmed cases and schools in businesses closed during the resulting surge. Located at 811 Fairview Ave., the nonprofit’s Bowling Green office has remained open during the pandemic. It continues to offer rapid HIV testing and case management services, including coordinating care and mapping out options for paying for care.

As long as patients are state residents and have tested positive for HIV, they’re automatically eligible for all or part of the clinic’s services, said Rachel Gilpin, the Bowling Green site director.

The clinic is already laying the foundations to expand its services in Bowling Green. Soon, Gilpin said, patients will be able to participate in telehealth services and be treated by a nurse practitioner remotely. It’s certain to be a boon for many patients in Bowling Green and its surrounding counties, Gilpin said, describing the region as a high-need area.

“It becomes a huge burden for people, in general, to have to travel for a specialist appointment,” she said. “This will cut some of that time out.”

Burton agrees.

“I think that it will bring a lot of flexibility for their care,” she said of the new Bowling Green office.

“We have quite a few patients who don’t even have transportation. So, when they come to see us, it’s an all-day thing,” Burton said, adding a patient might see their provider, get their labs done and visit the clinic’s food pantry before boarding a van to be taken back home.

HIV may no longer be a death sentence, but the public shouldn’t get complacent, Burton said.

“I think people need to keep working on their knowledge and get tested frequently,” she said.

It’s a public health challenge she and her colleagues are up for.

“I can tell you it’s the best work I’ve ever done,” Burton said.

– For more information about Matthew 25’s Bowling Green location call 270-904-7029.

– Follow education reporter Aaron Mudd on Twitter @BGDN_edbeat or visit bgdailynews.com.

– Follow education reporter Aaron Mudd on Twitter @BGDN_edbeat or visit bgdailynews.com.

Education reporter. Covers education and related issues, focusing primarily on the Bowling Green and Warren County public school districts and Western Kentucky University.

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