Rates of sexualluy transmitted infections have plummeted amid the coronavirus pandemic – but experts are wary that this statistical shift is not what it seems.
The number of people getting diagnosed with chlamydia each week in the US was 53 percent lower through June of this year compared to the same time period last year, according to preliminary figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Syphilis and gonorrhea rates were each down a third compared to last year.
Rates of all three sexually transmitted infections began to return to ‘normal’ by July as restrictions to slow the spread of COVID-19 were relaxed and pandemic fatigue set in.
For the first several months of the pandemic’s grip on the US, it’s likely that people really were dating less and being more cautious amid coronavirus fears.
But more people have signed up for dating apps since coronavirus hit the US, and a surveys suggest sexual activity has stayed stable or even increased among some groups.
Experts worry that the encouragingly lower rates of STIs mask a more disturbing trend: people simply aren’t getting tested, for fear of visiting health clinics and risking exposure to coronavirus.
Rates of syphilis, chlamydia and gonorrhea have all fallen amid the pandemic, but experts are concerned it’s not just a reflection of safer sex practices but of fewer people getting tested (file)
From the time of its emergence late last year in China until until late-February, public health officials tried to reassure people that coronavirus was spread primarily – if not entirely – by people with obvious symptoms like coughing or sneezing. The risk that an average American would catch it was low, they said.
Then the CDC announced the first instance of community spread in the US after a California resident tested positive despite having no history of travel to China or contact with people who had been there.
It soon became clear it wasn’t just California where coronavirus was spreading, and that it wasn’t just symptomatic people spreading it.
The virus was being transmitted, silently, including by people who had no idea or indication they had it.
By March, it seemed the virus was everywhere in metropolitan cities and travel hubs.
Every body became a insurgent. It was clear that mouths and noses were potential carriers of infectious particles. What else might be?
Early evidence showed it was unlikely that coronavirus was directly transmissible via sex.
In an effort to dispel some confusion, health departments released guidance that was at least as bizarrely and entertaining as it was helpful. The CDC, for example, briefly became an internet sensation after it effectively endorsed masturbation as the safest sex, glory holes as a good idea, and covering the mouth and nose during sex as hygienic.
It’s difficult to pin down exactly how much sex Americans are having at any given point, but surveys conducted in the US and abroad seem to suggest people are still getting intimate (with or without the recommended glory holes).
And it’s not necessarily those who have coupled up.
A survey of men who have sex with men in the US found that they were actually having sex with more partners amid the pandemic.
In the first two weeks of April, when much of the US was under stay-at-home orders, about half of the surveyed men said there had been no change to the number of people they had sex with.
Overall, from February to May, men reported an average increase of 2.3 more sexual partners.
However, these men were more likely to use protection during anal sex amid the pandemic than they had been prior to COVID-19.
Another survey of three South Asian countries found that people there, too, were having about as much or more sex with their partners.
Yet cases of the three most common STIs – syphilis, gonorrhea and chlamydia – all fell between the beginning of the year and June, reported CDC officials during a late-September seminar.
‘Now, there are a reasons both valid and not valid for this,’ said Dr Wienstock during the teleconference.
Cases of all three types of STi’s have increased since 2014. Chlamydia diagnoses have risen 19 percent, gonorrhea by 63 percent and syphilis cases have shot up by 71 percent.
So the declines of this year were a welcome change – but one Dr Wienstock said he was wary of.
For one, by July, rates of each had nearly returned to rates seen in 2019, he said.
‘It’s difficult to pinpoint why,’ Dr Wienstock admitted, ‘but I’ll highlight some factors.’
He said that there was a reduction in access to in-person testing as the nation locked down and non-essential businesses and medical procedures alike were shut down.
Dr Wienstock also noted that there may have been a delay effect of the summer rise in cases of chlamydia in July, as the nation started to reopen.
Some parts of the country, including California, have reported closures of sexual health clinics that could not afford to remain open after losing business amid the pandemic.
The possibility of a backlog, Dr Wienstock said, ‘suggests that the increases seen prior to 2019 and to the pandemic may still be with us.’