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The silent pandemic rages on: STDs on the rise in Seattle

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Photo by Polina Tankilevitch / Pexels
Photo by Polina Tankilevitch / Pexels

The COVID-19 pandemic put much of our lives on hold — school, work, social events — but one thing that hasn't seemed to take a break is our sex lives. Now, Seattleites are experiencing a second pandemic: a rise in STD rates that is simply unheard of, possibly a result of life during COVID.

For nearly a whole year, the city shut down. People rarely ventured out for anything other than provisions. This meant that less STD testing was available and utilized. While the data previously suggested that social distancing and stay-at-home orders had meant a decrease in sexual activity and STD numbers, doctors are now realizing they couldn't have been more wrong.

During the height of the pandemic, sex — specifically unprotected and casual sex — was still happening, but with nonessential clinics closed and others overwhelmed with COVID cases, sexually active people were unable to get tested for STDs at the usual rate.

The result? Thousands of infected people spread STDs across the city without even knowing it.

Photo by Ketut Subiyanto / Pexels  

The STD crisis nobody is talking about
This new spread comes in the wake of an ever-increasing STD crisis. Over the past decade, STD rates have skyrocketed, especially among young people. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that chlamydia, which affects one in ten sexually active teens and young adults, has had a 19% increase in cases since 2015. Gonorrhea, which has now evolved to become nearly incurable and resistant to all types of treatments, is up by 56%. Syphilis, which when left untreated can result in organ failure and even death, has risen by 74% in recent years. These diseases are now most common in adults between the ages of 20 and 24. Scientists warn that the increasing spread is allowing the diseases to mutate into a soon-incurable infections.

According to AIDS Health Foundation professional Howard Russell, the pandemic has contributed to this STD surge, not only by taking healthcare workers away from STD testing sites but by steering all health-related conversations toward the COVID-19 pandemic. "We've talked a lot more about the pandemic itself, and we kind of slowed down on talking about other diseases and infections out there, and that also includes HIV," said Russell.

"I don't see the media talking about STD rates going up high in different counties. Most people out there who don't work in the field don't even know that we have a rise in STDs."

With the COVID-19 vaccine leading to a reopening of businesses and schools in 2021, Americans also saw a vibrant return to "party culture." More young people were partaking in casual sex than ever before, but the numbers coming in for annual STD tests remained lower than they were before the pandemic. Moreover, a study out of Tulane University found that college-aged people were the least likely demographic to use a condom during sexual activities.

Other demographics experts say are prone to ditching condoms are men who have sex with other men. Howard explained that men whose HIV levels are undetectable are often not likely to spread HIV, and as a result, they may opt out of condom use. "[HIV-]positive people, once they get into an undetected stage, their ability to spread HIV to someone else is very low. Those on PrEP may feel the same way."

However, even if a person is not likely to spread HIV, they can still transmit other harmful STDs when they refuse to use a condom. "People don't want to give someone a dreadful disease they'll have for the rest of their lives," said Howard of HIV, but he noted that other STDs can be just the same if they go undetected for a long enough period.

Stopping the spread
According to the CDC, one of the most important ways to stop the spread of STDs is through disease intervention. "Disease intervention consists of two main parts," says the CDC. "First, it rapidly identifies people who don't know they may be infected. Second, it helps people receive treatment fast. This stops diseases from spreading and prevents serious health problems caused by them."

However, disease intervention specialists, like all medical professionals at the moment, are being spread thin, as they are also now tasked with trying to keep the COVID-19 pandemic under control.

Sexually transmitted diseases, like COVID-19, can often be found in people who are asymptomatic, meaning that they can spread an illness without even knowing. Many only go for disease testing once they notice something wrong with their body. But by the time results come in, they could have already spread the disease to multiple people.

According to CDC research, "asymptomatic" people, more often than not, are women or those assigned female at birth. Because most studies focus on male anatomy, doctors know less about how STDs present and affect female bodies. This means that women are far more likely to appear "asymptomatic."

The CDC reports that additional factors, including race, homelessness, low income, and lack of insurance, play into who is most likely to be impacted by STDs. The organization says that one cause for this includes racial or ethnic minorities harboring a distrust of the medical industry due to the history of medical discrimination. "This could create negative feelings around getting tested and treated for STDs."

Furthermore, sexual health screenings are still not seen as necessary medical expenses (even though many sites around Seattle are free), so people with limited disposable time and income often forgo an annual STD check.

Photo by Ketut Subiyanto / Pexels  

What can you do?
The CDC recommends that all people get tested for HIV after age 13. For men who have sex with other men, testing every three to six months is recommended. And, for people who partake in "risky sex," which is sex outside of a long-term and committed monogamous relationship, testing at least once a year is recommended.

The agency also recommends that all sexually active women under the age of 25 and men who have sex with men test for gonorrhea and chlamydia at least once a year.

Russell believes combatting a silent pandemic will take much more than just hoping people go in for their annual tests. "We need to educate people more. A condom is still very safe in preventing STDs. I think some people tend to think, 'Well, if I get an STD that's curable, I can always go in and get a shot,'" he said, noting that most don't realize the danger and long-term effects of advanced and mutated sexually transmitted infections.

Now, Russell said, it's more important than ever that people understand the importance of safe sex and practice it. "If you are on PrEP and you are having sexual contact with people, if you don't know your partner, wear a condom, period. If you are HIV positive and [undetectable], wear a condom, especially if you don't know your partner. If you don't know who your partner is, don't trust... that they might not have something."

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to rage on, STDs are still present and silently ravaging some of our most vulnerable communities. Annual testing and condom use are the least any of us can do to ensure the safety of those around us — and our own.