While a number of illnesses dropped during the pandemic, STDs found a prime breeding ground.
As many Austinites spent endless dreary months disconnected and lusting for life as we knew it, a number of illnesses also took a brief hiatus in the first year of the pandemic. The flu, for instance, pretty much disappeared. But not sexually transmitted diseases, which built upon a solid foothold that’s only been getting bigger every year. “COVID didn’t slow people down from having sex,” says Steven Tamayo, outreach and testing manager at Kind Clinic, a local sexual health and wellness clinic. “It just changed how they had sex.”
In case you weren’t sure, wearing face masks and getting it on outdoors doesn’t stop STDs. Last year, Tamayo reports, Kind Clinic screened over 2,300 people. More than 200 tests came back positive for chlamydia, nearly 200 were positive for gonorrhea, and over 60 tested positive for syphilis. “And that was in the middle of a pandemic,” he says.
Not surprisingly, demand for STD testing at the clinic’s North Austin walk-in site, which offers the service for free, ticked up as vaccines rolled out. By June of this year, the clinic had screened more than 3,000 people, diagnosing and treating hundreds of positive cases.
Austin is hardly alone in facing a nonstop current of STDs. In April, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that U.S. STD cases reached an all-time high in 2019 for the sixth year in a row. Using that CDC data, California research company Innerbody Research ranked the top 100 U.S. cities by STD rates. Austin came in at 62.
The most commonly reported diseases, at 2.5 million cases, were chlamydia, gonorrhea, and syphilis, the latter of which the U.S. had actually been on the verge of eliminating just 20 years ago. All three STDs have been on the rise in Texas for years, according to the latest data from state health officials. The diseases can have serious consequences, including infertility or severe pregnancy complications, if left untreated. Letting them circulate without stronger intervention may also mean fewer treatment options in the future as diseases like gonorrhea develop resistance to the medicines that treat it.
“Knock on wood, we haven’t seen it in Texas yet,” says Elizabeth Cardwell, lead clinician at Planned Parenthood of Greater Texas, which has seen rising STD cases in all the communities its clinics serve, “but it’s a smart bug and keeps mutating.”
Many of the factors driving up these record rates are the same that have always dogged STD prevention, namely stigma and access to care, says Paige Padgett Wermuth, assistant professor at UTHealth School of Public Health in Houston.
At the same time, she says, it’s probably no coincidence that STD rates are going up as investments in prevention go down. An analysis from the National Coalition of STD Directors found federal STD funding has declined 40 percent in purchasing power since 2003, meaning those on the frontlines at local health departments face rising rates with stagnant resources.
The Affordable Care Act increased insurance coverage of STD testing, but Wermuth says fewer dollars for public STD clinics, which often specialize in confidential, sex-positive care, ends up leaving many without testing options they feel safe about.
At Planned Parenthood of Greater Texas, which has four clinic sites within Austin city limits, the highest numbers of diagnosed STD cases are typically among 18- to 25-year-olds, says Cardwell. And while demand for STD services declined considerably during the first year of the pandemic, it was nearly back up to original levels by this summer.
Luckily, some help could finally be on the way. Last November, for the first time in more than two decades, the Texas State Board of Education revised its sex education curriculum. Right now, the majority of Texas school districts either don’t teach sex ed or only focus on abstinence, according to Jen Biundo, director of policy and data at the Austin-based Texas Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy. (The Austin Independent School District already has a fairly comprehensive sex ed program that covers STDs.)
With the new Texas curriculum standards, which go into effect in 2022, all students should get a basic education in sexual health. “For many kids, this will be the very first time they’re getting medically accurate information on STDs and prevention,” says J.R. Chester, project director at the campaign. “Taking the shame out of this is a huge factor.”
The funding situation could be shifting, too. President Biden’s American Rescue Plan tapped billions of dollars to hire more public health workers, who are usually charged with local STD prevention and control—when they’re not dealing with a raging pandemic. There are also proposals in Congress to boost the CDC’s STD funding.
More resources couldn’t come soon enough. Experts like Wermuth say that even if 2020 data shows COVID-19 did blunt the trajectory of STDs, it’s likely just a brief pause. “That’s the thing with STDs—there’s always going to be sex, so they’re always brewing.”
A brief glance at STD numbers in the city.
No. 62: Where Austin ranks among U.S. cities with the highest STD rates.
1,247: Number of STDs per 100,000 Austin residents in 2019.
34%: The combined total of STD increases in Travis County from 2014 to 2018.
18-25 years: The age group in Austin with the most STDs among those tested at Planned Parenthood of Greater Texas’ clinics.