“We are very worried about what this means for the public health system and for the American public’s health,” said Harvey.
One challenge during the pandemic is that many individuals are delaying care, including prevention and screening services.
The World Health Organization recommends that adolescents receive human papillomavirus, or HPV, vaccines, before they are likely to have been exposed to that virus. The vaccines prevent some of the strains of HPV most closely associated with cervical cancer.
There is no data specific to HPV vaccine usage during the pandemic, but more broadly, experts saw drops in vaccination rates during the past year.
“We may pay for that at a later stage,” said Harvey, who estimates the overall disruption and recovery period will last two to three years.
Data published in January in the Journal of the American Sexually Transmitted Diseases Association showed a significant decrease in visits related to STIs and treatment during the pandemic.
As states lifted some restrictions, rates of preventive care began to increase. But many experts caution it may take time to fill the backlog as clinics continue to follow safety precautions and limit personnel and patients.
Raegan McDonald-Mosley, CEO of Power to Decide, a nonprofit that focuses on reducing unplanned pregnancies among young people, said her own OB-GYN practice in Maryland was not allowed to have patients come in last spring for noncritical services including cancer screenings and HPV vaccines.
“When the regulations changed and people were allowed to come in for routine health services again, there was such a demand for it that we couldn’t get patients in fast enough,” she said. “I definitely think that this year has caused people to delay accessing noncritical services [and] preventive services, including cervical cancer screenings and HPV vaccines, and it may take quite some time, frankly, to sort of circle back and be able to address the full backlog of those services.”
Diana Thu-Thao Rhodes, vice president of policy, partnerships and organizing at Advocates for Youth, a nonprofit focused on sexual health education for young people, noted how teenagers are limited in access to care during the pandemic. For instance, college students who are no longer living on campus may not have access to a student health center.