With the COVID-19 pandemic in full swing, health care supplies and personnel are stretched thin across the nation. Now, medical professionals are warning that with the majority of resources being directed toward the coronavirus, other areas of care are being impacted. In particular, concern has grown around the potential for outbreaks of sexually transmitted diseases and infections, also known as STDs or STIs. With testing of these illnesses a low priority, experts say signs of outbreaks are already showing in locations nationwide.
Challenges Before the Pandemic
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has reported that 2018 saw an all-time high of combined cases of syphilis, gonorrhea, and chlamydia in the US. Their report named several potential causes, including drug use, poverty, decreased condom use and cuts to state and local STD programs.
“[U]rgent action from all types of stakeholders is needed to help control the increases in STDs,” the CDC report said. “Health care providers should make STD screening and timely treatment a standard part of medical care.”
This is easier said than done in the age of COVID-19. Adriane Casalotti, a representative for the National Association of County and City Health Officials (NACCHO), recently told The Verge that shelter-at-home orders have curtailed operations in testing centers.
“One of the most important things in the STI world is making sure that you can do open testing hours,” she said. “If you feel sick or not, you can come in, know your status, and get on your way. You can’t really do that anymore in this world of social distancing.”
Access to medication has also become less secure. In a NACCHO survey of local health departments, some reported being unable to administer HIV-preventing pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) medication. “Individuals who have expressed interest in PrEP will be lost to care or [will] have been exposed to HIV by the time that we are able to provide PrEP services to them,” one department said, per The Verge.
A Potential STD Outbreak
Myriad health departments surveyed expressed concern that such shortages could lead to serious outbreaks. According to the NACCHO, “Many [local health departments] reported that their jurisdictions have already experienced an increase in STIs — including syphilis cases and clusters — and discussed the risk for an outbreak during or following the pandemic.”
Casalotti agreed with this assessment. “We know that when we don’t pay attention to things, they bubble up and remind us,” she told The Verge. “That’s what could happen at the end of the coronavirus response.”