The COVID-19 pandemic has overtaken the world, radically changing the nature of healthcare and treatment, disrupting daily life, and causing widespread illness and panic. As the world’s focus has shifted to this deadly virus, the ongoing fight against STDs and HIV in the United States has been left on the back burner. In normal, pre-COVID times, contact tracers have been mainly deployed to track the spread of HIV and other STDs, such as gonorrhea, syphilis, and chlamydia, and notify those who may have been exposed to these diseases via sex or needle sharing (Brueck, 2020). Due to the current pandemic, 57% of these STD tracers now are tracking COVID, and 83% are not able to complete their usual STD field visits (Brueck, 2020). Furthermore, many STD health sites have temporarily closed in the last few months, limiting both testing and treatments for these potentially deadly diseases (Brueck, 2020). Specifically, 66% of U.S. clinics have reported a decline in STD testing and 80% of sexual health testing clinics have reduced hours or closed due to the pandemic (Brueck, 2020 & Hoffman, 2020). “Timely diagnosis and treatment” are crucial to STD prevention, according to Dr. Gail Bolan, the director of the Division of STD Prevention at the CDC (Hoffman, 2020). She fears “sustained increases” in STDs due to a lack of testing (Hoffman, 2020). The fact that many STDs, including chlamydia and gonorrhea, are often asymptomatic and undetectable without testing further emphasizes the necessity of early detection (Brueck, 2020).
The concerns about a rise in STDs seems to contradict the current data, which shows a decline in transmission of certain STDs since the beginning of the pandemic (Hoffman, 2020). Weekly reports of 2020 STD cases during the spring of 2020 fell 30-50% below their average in 2019 (Hoffman, 2020). While the pandemic has certainly limited social gatherings and sexual activity, experts believe that the cause of the statistical decline in STDs is primarily driven by a lack of testing rather than a decrease in transmission (Hoffman, 2020). This hypothesis is supported by the fact that these are less reported STD cases among the diseases whose testing supplies have been most negatively affected by COVID (Hoffman, 2020). On the other hand, STDs such as syphilis which are detected by blood tests and do not require similar supplies to COVID tests have 2020 data which mirrors that of 2019 (Hoffman, 2020). The disproportional decline in STDs suggests that the decrease in testing is the true cause of this statistical behavior.
In reality, medical experts suggest that STD cases have actually risen due to the pandemic. They surmise that the decreased contact tracers, clinic hours, and testing supplies have led to the rise of the amount of undetected cases and transmission (Hoffman, 2020). Furthermore, restrictions and fears of COVID-19 have also limited testing. For example, while the CDC recommends STD testing for symptomatic and at-risk patients, they discourage routine testing due to COVID (Hoffman, 2020). Patients who require STD testing or treatment may be avoiding hospitals and clinics as they fear contracting COVID (Hoffman, 2020). This perfect storm of issues has motivated the belief that STD cases will surge past their record-breaking 2019 levels post-COVID (Hoffman, 2020). However, the future is still uncertain, and further studies will be necessary to affirm this conclusion.
The threat of an uncontrolled spread of STDs is not limited to the United States: the pandemic could reverse years of progress in combating the AIDS pandemic in Africa due to a lack of testing, treatment, and medical supplies (Brueck, 2020). Experts speculate that perhaps 500,000 more deaths due to HIV/AIDS could occur in Africa in 2020-21 (Brueck, 2020). While data from other parts of the world can be difficult to obtain, it is likely that there will be similar rises in STDs across the globe.
Nonetheless, there may still be some positive developments that result from this time. STD testing conventionally requires the oversight of a medical professional; however, innovative STD self-testing kits and virtual healthcare have developed in response to the current pandemic (Hoffman, 2020). These creative inventions may pioneer a new era of more accessible STD detection, prevention, and treatment.
In the quest to stop one pandemic, the fight against another has been neglected. There are certainly many strange, unfortunate consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic, but the quiet rise of STDs cases, which have been continuously growing for years, may be the most unexpected to the average American.
Brueck, Hilary. “STD Rates Appear to be Quietly Skyrocketing Across the US, as Fewer People Get Tested and Treated during the Pandemic.” Business Insider, May 18, 2020. https://www.businessinsider.com/std-infection-rates-may-be-on-rise-during-coronavirus-pandemic-2020-5.
Hoffman, Jan. “People Are Still Having Sex. So Why Are S.T.D. Rates Dropping?” The New York Times, October 28, 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/10/28/health/covid-std-testing.html.