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COVID-19 Diverted Resources From Sexual Health, But Providers Are Ramping Up

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Janice Chang
/
NPR
Many sexual health centers across the region had to modify the services they offer, either by cutting back services or switching to telehealth services, due to the effects of the pandemic.

This summer, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention aims to release updated guidelines on how to treat and prevent the spread of sexually transmitted infections and diseases.

“They were much delayed by the pandemic — they really would have been out last year except for the impact of the pandemic on my CDC colleagues being deployed all over the country,” explained Dr. Hilary Reno, an associate professor of medicine at Washington University in St. Louis, medical director of the St. Louis Sexual Health Clinic and a CDC consultant.

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Evie Hemphill
Dr. Hilary Reno is an associate professor of medicine at Washington University in St. Louis, the medical director of the St. Louis Sexual Health Clinic and a CDC consultant.

It’s not just CDC guidelines. The pandemic stunted efforts to curb and treat STIs across the country — and St. Louis was no exception. Of the approximately 112 testing sites for STIs and HIV in the region, Reno said more than half either fully closed or had to modify their hours and services as COVID-19 spread throughout the U.S. They also lost access to testing supplies.

“Companies were diverting all of their manufacturing efforts to assembling and making the components of COVID tests,” Reno said. “And so we had to scramble, both at the hospital system and in the health departments, to make sure that we had testing equipment for STIs.”

Reduced testing made it difficult to track rates of infection and led to many infections going unchecked, as Reno explained on Thursday’s St. Louis on the Air.

She said the pandemic may have had some impact on sexual activity at the beginning, “but overall, people are still having sex.”

Reno continued, “And those of us that work in the field all have stories of patients who have come in with STIs, and certainly were not curbing their personal relationships because of fear of getting COVID.”

Untreated infections can have serious consequences, she stressed. But, she added, “there's no reason to freak out. Most of these infections are completely treatable and curable.”

Her clinic is now offering its full services and hours again, and has also reinstated walk-in appointments. It’s still not seeing quite the same numbers as it did pre-pandemic — something it hopes to change by raising awareness.

She noted that clinics across Missouri are receiving additional funding and resources this year to expand services for patients seeking sexual health care.

“Even with that big impact [from the pandemic] on sexual health care, the St. Louis region has more funding resources than we've probably ever had in sexual health,” she said.

That includes a three-year grant the St. Louis Department of Health received from the CDC last year. The Community Approach to Reducing Sexually Transmitted Diseases will conduct sessions to listen to Black men to improve messaging and service offerings to that community. Black men in St. Louis County suffer from gonorrhea at a rate that’s 19 times higher than their white counterparts.

Reno blames such statistics on systemic racism in medicine and the difficulties for some populations in accessing care.

“When it comes to racial disparities, there is a systemic racism in medicine which is just compounded by the stigma that people see when they're seeking out sexual health care,” she said. “That not only has people being turned away, but also just discouraged in seeking care.”

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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