There was a sharp drop in testing for sexually transmitted infections (STIs) in the United States during the COVID-19 pandemic, and that could translate into a future rise in cases, researchers say.
“The quickest way for people to spread STIs is to not know that they have one,” said study author Casey Pinto, an assistant professor of public health sciences at Penn State College of Medicine.
“The inability to detect asymptomatic cases could have negative repercussions for years to come,” Pinto warned in a Penn State news release.
For the study, the investigators reviewed data on more than 18 million STI test results from patients (aged 14 to 49) from January 2019 through June 2020, and found screening declines of 63% for men and 59% for women in the early months of the pandemic.
The findings suggest that asymptomatic and at-risk people may not have received timely testing or treatment for STIs during the pandemic, resulting in missed cases, according to the authors. The study was published online recently in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.
The decline in testing may have been due to restrictions on direct patient care and shifts to telehealth, the study authors noted, adding that the decrease in testing could lead to a future surge in STI cases.
During the pandemic, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended halting STI tests, except in patients with symptoms. But the study authors said this guidance was harmful because the majority of people (80%) with chlamydia or gonorrhea infections are asymptomatic.
Early evidence showed that people continued to be sexually active with people outside of their households, according to the researchers.
Once STI testing returns to pre-pandemic levels, there’s likely to be an increase in these infections that could lead to more related health consequences, such as pelvic inflammatory disease and infertility, the authors said.
“This research highlights the importance of maintaining resources for STI management even in the midst of a pandemic,” Pinto said.
“Moving forward, health care providers should strike a balance between responding to emerging crises and continuing to provide routine sexual health services. In addition, STI treatment and intervention efforts should be considered when allocating resources to manage public health emergencies,” she said.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has more on STIs.
SOURCE: Penn State, news release, May 25, 2021