Despite the fact that there are more than 20 million healthcare workers around the country, COVID-19 overtook hospitals and flooded communities, leaving an anemic and underfunded public health workforce scrambling to control and contain a new pandemic.
Beginning last March, local health departments redirected their attention and focused solely on fighting COVID, putting other pressing health crises like a pending STD epidemic on the back burner and testing public health officials’ capacity and resilience.
Now, with hope on the horizon and more than 3 million vaccines being distributed each day, memories are short and it’s easy to forget that these medical professionals were pushed to the breaking point trying to control one infectious disease, nevermind several.
Last month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released their 2019 STD Surveillance Report highlighting that sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) reached an all-time high for the sixth consecutive year, with more than 2.5 million cases of chlamydia, gonorrhea and syphilis reported in 2019. Alarmingly, between 2015 and 2019, STDs rose nearly 30 percent – congenital syphilis cases alone quadrupled during that time.
Now, consider this: recent surveys from the National Coalition of STD Directors found that up to 78 percent of the national STD program workforce was re-deployed to aid and even lead pandemic response efforts at various points. In addition, critical disease intervention services for chlamydia, syphilis and gonorrhea dropped by 18-28 percent. Finally, only a fraction of patients who needed care received it, and many new infections went completely unchecked.
This means that the warning signs of an STD epidemic have come and gone, and now the US will face the long tail impacts of COVID-19 coupled with an STD epidemic, the likes of which we have not seen in decades.
The only way to manage the potential impacts of this crisis is for the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to make considerable investments in the public health workforce.
Fortunately, the American Rescue Plan (ARP) passed in March by the Biden administration has already allocated funding to do just that. Among other things, the bill allocates $7.6 billion to HHS to bolster the nation’s public health workforce. It is a critical first step in rebuilding after this unprecedented crisis. Now, HHS must take a multi-pronged approach to implement it.
Crucially, HHS must provide robust funding to state and local health departments to hire and train Disease Intervention Specialists (DIS), the individuals tasked with stemming the spread of infectious diseases through contact tracing. Their expertise is invaluable in navigating complex crises, as we have seen during the pandemic, and short-staffing over the years has contributed to skyrocketing STD rates. Investments in DIS will empower them to continue their life-saving work and ensure that the U.S. is able to respond to both acute and chronic health threats for years to come.
Moreover, STD clinics that provide screening, prevention and treatment services must be supported and expanded, including through partnerships with pharmacies and retail health clinics, so that walk-in testing and treatment are accessible nationwide.
The past year has also shown the value in meeting people where they are: as we build for the future, the ARP funding should spawn new research and development into innovative remote care options, like at-home testing kits, which will increase accessibility and help close care deserts in rural areas.
President Biden often talks about the need to build back better. It could not be truer – or more urgent – than in public health where, for decades, our government has failed our most vulnerable citizens with chronic underinvestment in treatment and care.
We may not have seen the current pandemic coming, but a looming STD epidemic is flashing red right now. The U.S. cannot afford to be caught out once again, woefully unprepared and wholly unequipped to cope. We have lost countless loved ones and neighbors during the COVID-19 pandemic – we can’t lose more to yet another health crisis. This is our chance to finally regain control and get ahead of this epidemic of our own making – the time to act is now.