As contact tracers have been increasingly tied up tracking down possible sources of covid-19, health officials are worried that the shift in priorities will result in a spike of STIs.
In previous times, the job of contact tracers was to work with people who have contracted or been exposed to sexually transmitted infections, test them, and connect them with treatment if necessary. But now, such cases are going unmonitored as tracers prioritize coronavirus.
One recent survey found that 83 percent of HIV and STD tracers around the country have abandoned their regular field visits as a result of the pandemic, Business Insider reports. Two-thirds of the country’s clinics have reported decreases in health screenings and testing due to coronavirus.
The U.S. was already short on contact tracers even before the pandemic began, with only 2,200 tracers tracking diseases—far short of the 100,000 to 300,000 experts say would be needed to contain covid-19.
“Anecdotally, I don’t think people have stopped having sex necessarily, although the number of partners may have gone down,” David Harvey, executive director of the National Coalition of STD Directors (NCSD) told Business Insider. “But we’re really worried about the larger issues of people not getting tested, people not getting treated, and what that means for inadvertent spread of infections in the future.”
Experts are also concerned that covid-19 could undo more than a decade of progress diagnosing and treating HIV infections in Africa, which could lead to 500,000 additional deaths between 2020 and 2021.
Like so many other things, the extent of the damage won’t be fully measurable until the pandemic ends. As Adriane Casalotti, chief of government and public affairs at the National Association of County and City Health Officials (NACCHO), told The Verge:
“When the dust settles on coronavirus, we’re going to find out about all the public health issues that we haven’t been able to pay attention to, and how big of a problem they’ve gotten as they’ve kind of been under the radar.”
More disturbing still is that it’s unclear how long it will be until diseases besides covid-19 are once again prioritized.
“It’s not just that these people are being pulled off of their daily work in the STI space, Casalotti said. “It’s that they’re pulled off it and we don’t when they’ll be able to return to that work.”