COVID-19 response leads to less STI screening amid STI epidemic


DENVER (KDVR) — The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates tens of thousands of sexually transmitted infections are not being treated due health care demands of the COVID-19 pandemic. Doctors fear less screening during the early days of the pandemic has led to an even more serious STI epidemic in America.

Over the last four to five years, Colorado has seen increasing rates of STIs, according to Dr. Karen Wendel, director of HIV and STI Prevention Control at Denver Public Health. STI rates nationwide have been at record highs, according to the CDC.

As COVID-19 changed our way of life, health care resources shifted dramatically to focus on the novel coronavirus.

“Some clinics closed completely,” Wendel said. “Many other clinics really had to reduce volume.”

Wendel says routine STI screening suffered.

In 2018 — the most recent complete and finalized year of data — Denver saw a 150% increase in gonorrhea, a 25% increase in chlamydia and a 75% increase in early syphilis, according to Wendel. Those STIs are curable. However, if left untreated, the infections can lead to serious health consequences. More common STIs also increase the risk of being infected with HIV, a virus that does not currently have a cure.

“We missed so many people over these last few months that we’re still just trying to catch everybody up,” said Dr. Juliet Leman with Sky Ridge Medical Center in Lone Tree.

Leman says her practice is still experiencing another issue with linking patients with care. Many patients do not feel fully comfortable visiting clinics during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Sexual Health Clinic at Denver Public Health typically has between 13,000 to 14,000 visits per year. At the beginning of the pandemic, staffers at that clinic only saw 20-30 percent of that usual volume. But, Wendel says, the situation is improving.

“All of medical care has really been ramping up their ability to work under these new conditions,” Wendel said.

The amount of visits at the Sexual Health Clinic is now back to a normal volume.

But there’s still another hurdle. Doctors are currently forced to ration a short supply of testing instruments because manufacturers have redirected efforts toward COVID-19 testing. Wendel says it’s important to not let limited supplies dissuade people from being tested and — if needed — treated. More options are now available. Those options include telemedicine for consultations and new at-home testing.


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