AUGUSTA, Ga. – Concern remains among health care officials about a decrease in HIV and STD testing due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Raven Wells, community outreach coordinator for the Ryan White Program, said they’ve seen a decrease in HIV testing in the Augusta area, which concerns her because HIV can be considered a pandemic on its own.
“We don’t necessarily have it under control as much as we would like to,” Wells said.
Wells said health care providers wanted to show a united front and followed Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines to stay home, so the program didn’t offer HIV testing at the beginning of the pandemic.
Since guidelines have changed, Wells said they are trying to offer free self-testing kits.
With a decrease in testing, the number of HIV and STD cases might appear to be lower for 2020, but Wells said it is realistic that numbers are still increasing, since people are probably still having sex. The Georgia Department of Public Health, which keeps track of HIV and STD data for the state, does not have 2020 numbers ready and is still working to confirm 2019 STD numbers.
According to DPH data, there were 3,746 STD cases in Richmond County in 2019, down from 3,874 in 2018, but up from 3,605 in 2017. The most common STD in Richmond County was chlamydia with 2,574 cases, followed by gonorrhea with 985. Most cases were among Black people with 2,946 STD cases and among 20- to 24-year-olds with 1,191 cases in 2019.
Columbia County had 696 STD cases in 2019, up from 617 in 2018 and 620 in 2017. Similar to Richmond County, chlamydia and gonorrhea were the most common STDs.
Georgia DPH infectious disease section director Michelle L. Allen said the department has not reduced the number of services it provides during the pandemic but they did see a decline in HIV testing. STD testing for gonorrhea and chlamydia has also decreased, but Allen cited slower production of testing kits due to the manufacturer having COVID-19 related issues.
“COVID-19 expanded our responsibilities, but it did not reduce any of our core or essential functions. STDs and HIV testing has gone on during the pandemic. While, in addition to doing that, we were also able to address adding COVID testing and, now, vaccine distribution to our routine,” she said. “We saw a decline in HIV testing. The decline is actually very consistent with what we’ve seen nationwide.”
Preliminary statewide data shows STD cases increased by 4,955 in 2019 with 94,954 total cases. Richmond County had the sixth-most STD cases in the state, behind Fulton, DeKalb, Gwinnett, Cobb and Clayton counties.
Richmond County saw 103 new HIV diagnoses in 2018, with a total of 1,593 people in the county living with HIV. Columbia County had 16 cases with 200 HIV-positive people living in the county. In terms of HIV cases, Georgia DPH only has data up to 2018 due to 2019 numbers not being finalized.
The state had 2,600 HIV diagnoses in 2018 bringing the total of people living in the state with HIV to 60,346, according to DPH data. The majority of the 2018 cases were among Blacks with 1,809, most of the transmission was through male-to-male sexual contact with 1,684 and most of the HIV diagnoses were in the 20-29 age group with 1,040.
According to DPH, Georgia ranked fifth in the nation for number of new HIV diagnoses and persons living with HIV infection. Georgia was first in the rate of HIV diagnosis among adults and adolescents and fourth in the rate of people living with HIV. Based on the CDC 2018 HIV Surveillance Report, the Augusta-metro area has the sixth highest sexually transmitted disease rate in the country.
Allen said they are offering at-home testing options for HIV testing and are working with health districts across the state to soon offer at-home STD testing. She hopes at-home testing can help deal with the stigma around STD and HIV testing.
“Stigma is an issue for STD and HIV above and beyond the COVID pandemic. Stigma occurs for many reasons,” she said. “We want to provide opportunities to share the information to help reduce stigma and we want to share the information to let people know how they can access the services that they may need that we offer.”
Wells said people should still be practicing safe sex practices, like condom-use, during the pandemic, or even limited sexual activity while the pandemic is ongoing.
“You really want to know people’s status. Now, because of COVID, it’s easier to access the HIV test, at least in our area,” she said.
At-home HIV test pickup locations
Walgreens Community Pharmacy – 8:30 a.m.-1:30 p.m. and 2-5 p.m. weekdays; closed Saturdays and Sundays
Harrisburg Family Healthcare – 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Monday; 10 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Tuesday-Wednesday
The tests are free and can be done in 20 minutes at home.