WASHINGTON — The pandemic’s stress on the nation’s health system has amplified challenges in rising rates of sexually transmitted infections, which have been overlooked because of a lack of funding and personnel in the past year.
The new challenges in preventing the spread of STIs come as contact tracers were shifted to work on COVID-19 prevention. STI clinics also rely on local funding, which was cut in many places during the economic downturn. Meanwhile, testing supplies remain in shortage.
Experts say additional policies to expand education, combat supply shortages and provide direct funding are needed, especially as states continue to ease COVID-19 restrictions that could lead to even more cases of sexually transmitted infections.
The rates of new cases of common sexually transmitted diseases or infections climbed to more than 2.4 million in 2018, up from 1.8 million in 2013, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data. One in 5 Americans had a sexually transmitted infection, according to CDC data released in late January.
From 2014–2018, reported cases of STIs increased dramatically, according to CDC data released in December. Primary and secondary syphilis cases rose 71%, congenital syphilis climbed 185%, gonorrhea jumped 63% and chlamydia increased 19%.
Democrats have argued that a push in recent years toward abstinence-only education and “sexual risk avoidance” policies contributed to a lack of knowledge, especially among young people. CDC data show that over 45% of all new STIs in 2018 were among people 15 to 24 years old. The pivot to online learning posed a new challenge for ensuring youth access to sexual health resources.
Public health advocates worry about spikes now and in years to come due to the pandemic. They are looking to Congress and the Biden administration to push for policies and funding to reverse this trend.
Disruptions to health care delivery, the shuttering of STI clinics, the lack of contact tracing and nationwide testing supply shortages all concern advocates.
“People are not stopping having sex. There is evidence emerging from local communities that we will see an explosion of new STI and HIV rates once we recover from COVID and people start testing again,” said David Harvey, executive director of the National Coalition of STD Directors.
CDC surveillance efforts were disrupted due to the pandemic, but Harvey predicts national data will eventually show increases mirroring trends from state and local reporting.