GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — The Kent County Health Department is trying to get the word out about an alarming trend it’s seeing: rising cases of sexually transmitted infections.

Health experts say the pandemic has played a major role in the increases, but that numbers have been going up since before COVID-19. 

April Hight, the personal health services program supervisor for the Kent County Health Department says while it’s a national issue, it’s hitting Kent County hard. She says that gonorrhea has more than doubled over the last 10 years, with drastic increases in the past two years. That’s also the case for syphilis which is also rapidly rising.

“Syphilis in general just has kind of gone from kind of something you didn’t see a lot to something that we actually are treating probably like once a week at the clinic,” Hight said. “Syphilis has made a demographic change as well. Most cases used to be men with men, now 1/4 are women of childbearing age, so there has also been a rapid increase of congenital syphilis in the state.”

She explained that COVID-19 has been a big part of it, including a lack of access to testing, especially for those who don’t have symptoms. 

“Syphilis has some symptoms, but it can go unrecognized and then after those symptoms are gone you may not have any symptoms for a while. Same with HIV,” she said. “Chlamydia often has not a lot of symptoms so if there’s lack of access to screening, just getting a test because you’re at risk, then there’s potential to have STIs and then spread STIs so that definitely happened during COVID.”

Hight added that a lot of people were afraid to go to the ER and urgent care and a lot of places that traditionally did STI testing shut down. There was also a shortage of testing kits. 

The lack of doctors’ office visits has also pushed Hepatitis C cases up. Hight explained that people are recommended to get a Hepatitis C test once a year when they go to the doctor, but fewer doctors’ visits meant fewer people were doing that.  

“(It) used to be that the population 65 and older were most at risk. Now they’re seeing another curve of younger people and a lot of this is because of the opioid epidemic and so it’s also really important to get tested for Hep C and Hep C is treatable, a lot of people don’t know that,” Hight said.

She says that although it’s a difficult thing to address if it’s not addressed now, the issue won’t go away.

“We need to address it in education, we need to standardize STI testing for certain age groups. (People ages) 15-24, they most likely, because of the stigma that goes along with sexual health, they’re not going to come forward with the risk and so we just need to be testing in that age group,” she said.

Health departments offer free and confidential testing regardless of income or insurance status. They also do not bill private insurance, which Hight said can be a concern for some people who are under their parents’ insurance. She added that a lot of people don’t realize the age of consent for a sexual health screening is 13, so young people can get screened, treated and tested without a parent’s consent. 

More information about the services offered can be found on the KCHD website. If you live outside of Kent County, you can contact your local health department, or find a testing site near you on the state health department’s website