Planned Parenthood hopes COVID-19 doesn’t leave a rising tide of STI infections in its wake — but unfortunately, that looks probable to them.

The United States is seeing local health departments redeploy staff who worked to track and treat sexually transmitted infections to instead help track, treat and contain novel coronavirus outbreaks.

Those workers may have previously tracked STIs, such as HIV, ensured that patients received treatment, and reached out to others who may have been exposed to infectious diseases to stop unaware, untreated people from spreading viruses further.

Many clinics have also reduced hours, stopped accepting walk-in patients, and stopped outreach activities. Worse, patients who would benefit from an STI panel may avoid coming to a clinic in person for fear of contracting COVID-19.

According to a press release, Planned Parenthood has seen a 250% increase in telehealth services since March. Still, the organization is concerned about a rise in STI cases surrounding the pandemic, said Emily Bisek, regional director of strategic communications for Planned Parenthood in North-Central states.

STIs were a problem, with record-high case numbers reported in 2018, before COVID-19 limited clinics’ and patients' mobility. Chlamydia is the most commonly reported STI, with 1.8 million cases in the U.S. in 2018. According to the Minnesota Department of Health, there were 23,564 cases in Minnesota alone that year. Gonorrhea cases increased 16% (7,542) from 2017 to 2018.

Related: Minnesota to offer free COVID-19 testing over the weekend

To combat the expected rise in infection rates, Planned Parenthood has launched at-home STI testing kits. After a video visit with a clinician, patients can be mailed a testing kit with directions for sample collection and return shipping supplies. Testing kits can be mailed out within a week, the patient has 30 days to return samples, and the lab typically has results within a week and a half.

Lisa Christiansen, a nurse practitioner for Planned Parenthood in Rochester and Southeast Minnesota, answered a few questions about the kits and process.

Lisa Christiansen // contributed photo, Planned Parenthood
Lisa Christiansen // contributed photo, Planned Parenthood

Which STIs are covered in the at-home testing kits?

We can’t test for everything — blood tests, that kind of thing; some things we can’t send through the mail. But we can test for chlamydia, gonorrhea and trichomoniasis.

What does the telehealth conference entail?

We discuss their history, what their risk factors are, and then according to that, a recommendation is made for what testing should be done.

Who should consider this service?

Of course, patients who have risk factors (for infections). But we also recommend that even before COVID-19, anyone under the age of 25 do testing for STIs every year — or after meeting new partners. And that’s a recommendation from the department of health.

How would you describe the interest in telehealth services in Rochester?

Of course, right at first, people don’t know it’s available — but it’s definitely increased. We have people that — even now, when they can go to the clinic to be seen — would rather be seen through video visits. That’s not everyone, but definitely there’s still a need and still a want for it. ... We have seen primarily the request for birth control ... and that follows our general visits that we see in the clinic.

Is there anything else people should know about these kits?

It’s a needed service — people are happy to have the service, and it’s an option for people who don’t necessarily want to go into the clinic, whether that’s because of COVID-19, or where they live, that kind of thing.

For more information on telehealth services (including birth control, IUD and birth control implant consultation, UTI screening, PrEP and PEP consultation, and hormone therapy) and at-home STI testing kits, visit www.plannedparenthood.org. To make an appointment, call 800-230-7526.

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