Cases of syphilis and gonorrhea soared during the pandemic in 2020, particularly in the months that followed strict “stay at home” orders, preliminary data shows.
The record number of cases of syphilis and gonorrhea seen later in the year may be due in part to people delaying diagnostic tests during the lockdown from March to May, said Emily Johnson, the city’s HIV and sexually transmitted infection surveillance program supervisor.
New cases of syphilis peaked at just over 40 in September 2020, compared to a five-year average of 25 cases during the same month.
The spike came after a precipitous drop in reported infections during a roughly two month period in the spring when residents were asked to stay home to avoid spreading COVID-19. Cases of the infection went from 35 in March to roughly 20 in May.
Cases of gonorrhea also showed a steady climb after the strict health orders were lifted, from about 100 new cases in May 2020 to a peak of nearly 160 new cases in December.
The record number of new infections in 2020 prompted city health officer Dr. Anissa Davis to send a health advisory to local providers in November with a renewed push for screening and treatment.
“While LGBTQ communities, people of color, and those experiencing poverty, homelessness, and addiction continue to be disproportionately impacted, rising rates mean that additional populations are at greater risk,” Davis said in her advisory.
Long Beach already ranked among cities in the state with the highest number of sexually transmitted infections, or STIs, based on 2018 data.
Due to the pandemic, the city released 2019 data in June, which showed cases of gonorrhea, syphilis and chlamydia—the most common STI—dipped slightly or held steady compared to the prior year.
However, over the span of seven years, from 2012 to 2019, the number of chlamydia cases in Long Beach has increased 51%, gonorrhea cases increased by 242% and syphilis cases increased by 275%.
More complete data for 2020 is expected to be released early next year, but so far it appears 2020 was a record year for STI infections.
Chlamydia was not included in the preliminary data because the way that data is reported changed, and officials are not sure whether a decline seen in 2020 was due to fewer positive tests being reported, Johnson said.
Johnson also noted that labs and providers do not report negative test results to the city, meaning it’s hard to know whether the rise is due to more people being tested.
All three infections can be treated with a course of antibiotics, but left untreated can lead to serious health effects including infertility in women.
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