Staff Columnist

We have another health crisis: STIs going undetected

A clinician tests a sample Sept. 13, 2019, in the lab at the Planned Parenthood clinic in Iowa City. (Liz Martin/The Gaz
A clinician tests a sample Sept. 13, 2019, in the lab at the Planned Parenthood clinic in Iowa City. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)

In Iowa, we deal with hardship through grit, determination and passive-aggressive denial.

If we don’t see it, it didn’t happen. Which works if you are trying to ignore your high schooler’s vape habit, but not if you are handling a public health crisis.

Gov. Kim Reynolds has repeatedly refused to release key information about the novel coronavirus pandemic. Such as: accurate numbers on meatpacking plant outbreaks, and positive and negative case data exclusively from Test Iowa, the public-private partnership for COVID-19 testing. For months, the state was backdating positive tests. And the state is not tracking outbreaks at K-12 schools.

And other key pieces of data are falling through the pandemic loophole — the rates of sexually transmitted infections like gonorrhea and chlamydia.

A story in The Daily Iowan, the University of Iowa’s college newspaper, quotes Johnson County health officials saying they are not testing for STIs as frequently as they did before, citing a lack of resources due to the pandemic. Johnson County is home to the UI, one of the nation’s COVID-19 hot spots.

Iowa’s STI rates already were on the rise thanks to a 2017 Republican law that effectively gutted Planned Parenthood and made it harder to access reproductive health care in the state.

The law forced four Planned Parenthood locations across the state to close. The state then set up its own family planning network. An investigation by The Gazette found that many of the clinics in that network didn’t provide family planning services at all. Some were labs, one was a dentist office, another a high school nurse, a homeless shelter and a dermatologist. Others were religiously affiliated clinics run by activists opposed to abortion rights. Additionally, requiring people to set up appointments and pay out of pocket or use Medicaid added a barrier to accessing health care. Experts at the time warned this could lead to higher STI rates and more abortions.

Not surprisingly, now STI rates in Iowa are on the rise and so are abortions. Boldly marching forward and adopting medically unsound policies is how we ended up with over 1,200 Iowans dead from COVID-19, and leading the nation as one of its worst virus hot spots. It’s also how we’ve effectively caused another health crisis.

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“STIs are skyrocketing in Iowa,” said Erin Davison-Rippey, Iowa executive director of Planned Parenthood North Central States. “Now, public health officials are being taken off combating STIs, which means STIs are only going to get worse. Iowans need access to testing and treatment. There are the lasting health impacts. STIs are infections that left untreated can cause infertility, stroke, blindness and a myriad other health problems. The health of Iowans is at stake. A shortsighted solution leaves Iowans behind today and sick tomorrow.”

When Iowa Department of Human Services Director Kelly Garcia took over on Nov. 1, 2019, she promised to look at the family planning data and issue a report.

But a pandemic and the derecho, which was the equivalent of an inland hurricane, have made everything in the state that much harder.

Matt Highland, the public information officer for Human Services, explained, “Staff in the STD program were temporarily reassigned to assist with COVID-19 follow up. Staff in our bureau are experienced with contact tracing as well as the data management system that the Department utilizes for communicable diseases. These team members are well positioned to step in and offer assistance while the state responds to the pandemic. The COVID-19 pandemic has required health departments across the country to reallocate resources to address the pandemic in their jurisdictions.”

Highland added that STI testing was driven down by the pandemic.

“Clinics that did remain open often experienced lower patient volumes because patients were uncomfortable presenting at the clinic due to concern of COVID-19 spread. More recently, there have been nationwide shortages and back-orders of key components to chlamydia/gonorrhea testing. This has forced us to prioritize testing for chlamydia/gonorrhea further with our safety net STD clinics.”

Addressing this issue still remains a priority for Director Garcia. But the reality is the department is left to suture the gaping wound that Republicans gave to the state in 2017. When you gut the social safety net, you can’t be surprised when people fall through.

Meanwhile, in the state, we are not crushing the COVID-19 curve. The curve is crushing us.

But don’t worry, because bars and restaurants and gyms are open.

It’s governance by closing your eyes and sticking your fingers in your ears and saying, “I can’t hear you.”

Until the problem goes away. Except it never does. In fact, it’s only getting worse.

lyz.lenz@thegazette.com; 319-368-8513.

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