Social distancing guidelines during the COVID-19 pandemic significantly disrupted the reporting of sexually transmitted infections and diseases. This article covers everything you need to know about the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact on STIs and STDs.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, certain STD rates were at a record high. For example, gonorrhea, chlamydia, and syphilis rates were higher at the beginning of 2020 than in 2019. Then preventative measures were enforced to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, and the number of STD cases dropped.
However, this downward trend does not prove the spread of STDs was slowing down. Extraneous factors more likely led to this decrease, including:
- Reduced screening
Most industries, including healthcare, slowed down their businesses and offered limited services during the COVID-19 pandemic. With fewer people attending regular doctor’s appointments and getting STD tested, there was likely a large population of people who had an STD and were unaware of it. In other words, a limited number of testing and fewer in-person healthcare visits could have contributed to the downward STD trend. STDs do not always show symptoms, so a screening might be the only way to know if you have one.
The enforcement of social distancing to stop the spread of COVID-19 may have influenced sexual behavior. People may have limited their number of sexual partners or reduced their sexual activity. This, as a result, could have reduced the spread of STDs.
- Stressed resources
At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, many healthcare programs shifted their focus to helping to control the spread of COVID-19. The lack of resources and staff in sexual health programs, including case investigation and reporting, could have resulted in a decreased number of STD reportings.
The most common sexually transmitted diseases today include the following:
- Human papillomavirus (HPV)
Human papillomavirus is a common STD worldwide. It is spread through skin-to-skin contact during sex and can cause genital warts and cancer if left untreated. There are treatments and a vaccine available to fight against HPV.
Chlamydia is a common and treatable STD. It can spread through vaginal sex and cause infertility and ectopic pregnancies in women. It is most common in people under 25.
Gonorrhea is a very common and treatable STD. It affects the throat, genitals, and rectum. It is most common in people aged 15-24.
Syphilis is a curable STD, but it can cause serious health problems if left untreated. You can contract syphilis through direct contact with a syphilis sore or through casual contact with objects.
All STD cases dropped at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, none dropped as significantly as chlamydia cases.
Reported chlamydia cases decreased by almost 13% by the end of 2020. However, this decrease is most likely attributed to the factors above rather than a reduction in new infections. Chlamydia does not typically cause symptoms, so testing may be the only way to know if you have the disease. Since most people were not getting checked regularly during the pandemic, there were likely a large number of new infections that went unreported.
A lack of staffing and resources also led to some health departments prioritizing syphilis and gonorrhea treatment over chlamydia treatments. This likely contributed to the drop in reported chlamydia cases.
While syphilis and gonorrhea cases dropped at the beginning of the pandemic, cases sharply increased throughout the rest of 2020. By the end of the year, reported syphilis cases increased by 7%, and reported gonorrhea cases increased by 10%.
A few factors may have caused this trend. As healthcare clinics reopened, more people may have gotten regular STD testing done. In addition, syphilis and gonorrhea can cause visible symptoms, which may have driven symptomatic people to get tested, leading to increased reported cases. Lastly, these increased rates may simply reflect the sexual activity of people throughout the pandemic.
The observed downward trend of STI and STD reporting during the COVID-19 pandemic does not mean sexually transmitted diseases are going away. The opposite is true. Before the pandemic began, sexually transmitted infection rates were at a record high. The lack of testing and reporting opportunities throughout the pandemic means that an unknown amount of STI transmission went unreported. This will only lead to increased STI rates in the future.
Regular testing is essential to the prevention of sexually transmitted diseases. Because many STDs do not cause symptoms, you can have and spread a sexually transmitted disease without knowing it. Getting a routine STD test can ensure that you are having safe sex and prevent the development of an STD.
In recent years, dating apps have influenced dating and hookup culture, allowing people to widen their social circle and connect with a larger range of people. Dating apps were significantly influential throughout the pandemic, as many people turned online to connect with others while self-isolating at home.
Since dating apps play such a prominent role in hookup culture, they should also promote safe sex practices, including encouraging routine STD testing. While some dating app companies have taken steps to raise awareness of sexual health, more work needs to be done. Ways that dating apps could contribute to sexual health awareness include:
- Sending users regular STD testing reminders
- Alerting users of STD outbreaks in their area
- Creating a space where users can inform former partners that they have potentially contracted an infection
- Having a feature that discloses whether or not a user has an STD
COVID-19 disrupted the testing and reporting of sexually transmitted diseases, particularly gonorrhea, chlamydia, and syphilis. Many new STD infections likely went unreported, leading to an increased spread of certain diseases. As more healthcare services become accessible, it is essential to get routine STD testing done. Doing so could prevent complications of an STD from developing and slow the spread of STDs.