Planned Parenthood Reports Dramatic Drop in HIV Testing in Upstate

Agency officials expects greater spread of HIV as a result

By Deborah Jeanne Sergeant

For people at risk for human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) infection, receiving regular testing and prompt test results can help reduce their chances of spreading HIV. Since the pandemic began last spring, testing and prompt results have been disrupted.

According to Planned Parenthood of Central and Western New York, which maintains offices serving the Rochester, Buffalo and Syracuse areas, testing for HIV has decreased dramatically since the local onset of the pandemic.

The agency facilitated 4,644 tests from Mar. 1, 2019 through Oct. 1, 2019. During the same period in 2020, the number of tests plummeted to only 2,403. That is 51% fewer tests.

The reasons vary behind why testing has declined so dramatically.

“I think that is directly related to our patients not wanting to come in,” said Amy Hsi, nurse practitioner for Planned Parenthood of Central and Western New York in Rochester, Buffalo and Syracuse. “In general, it’s because of the risk of COVID and having to adjust for safety reasons.”

The healthcare industry underscored the seriousness of COVID-19 by suspending non-emergency services for weeks during the pandemic’s onset. Although on April 1, Planned Parenthood announced expansion of telehealth, testing for HIV through Planned Parenthood requires a physical presence.

“Most healthcare providers are offering telehealth services so people can get care, but for HIV testing, you have to go somewhere,” Hsi said. “They need to come in or we could order it and they could go to a lab.”

The agency does not provide home-based tests for patients to take or mail to a lab. Home tests are available at pharmacies such as CVS and Rite Aid for about $35 to $45. Oral tests offer accurate results in minutes; however, they are only accurate if the test is taken after three months of the exposure incident. For people who frequently engage in risky activity, waiting that long for test results can contribute to the spread of HIV.

Although healthcare providers have opened back up for seeing more patients, the social distancing rules mean fewer patients can be admitted in offices at a time. That can hamper providers’ ability to offer services in a timely fashion.

Hsi said that periodic surges in COVID-19 infection numbers continue to keep many wary patients away.

She thinks that the pandemic may cause greater spread of HIV compared with previous years. At this point, it is difficult to tell.

“If people really are self-quarantining and not getting out as much, they may not be doing at-risk activities,” Hsi said. “Then again, maybe people at home are having more unprotected sex without knowing their HIV status. If people can’t get condoms and PrEP, it puts them more risk.”

Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis (PrEP) is a daily medication that can prevent people at high risk for HIV from contracting the infection.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “In the United States, HIV is mainly spread by having sex or sharing syringes and other injection equipment with someone who is infected with HIV. Substance use can contribute to these risks indirectly because alcohol and other drugs can lower people’s inhibitions and make them less likely to use condoms.”

Fewer access points

Locally, Jiancheng Huang, public health director for Oswego County Public Health, said that numbers in Oswego County have decreased for those seeking HIV testing.

“I think that COVID has overtaken everything,” he said. “A lot of people aren’t coming in to have HIV tests.”

Fewer access points may be why the number is going down across the region. For example, Oswego County Health Department and the satellite office in Mexico have remained open for HIV testing, but its satellite offices at SUNY Oswego and in Central Square and Pulaski closed until further notice.

Cayuga County Health Department outsources its HIV testing to facilities, including East Hill Family Medical, Inc.in Auburn.

“HIV testing is going down a little bit,” said Chris Soprano, health programs specialist at East Hill. “At the beginning of the pandemic, no one was coming in, but it is gradually getting better.”

The facility never shut down during the pandemic. Soprano attributes the lower numbers of people seeking testing for sexually transmitted infections to the public’s hesitancy of going places because of COVID-19.

Soprano said that overall fewer patients are seeking testing for sexually transmitted disease. This could indicate that transmission rates will rise “to the highest they’ve been in a very long time,” Soprano said.

Because of the pandemic, patients are not seeking testing and may be unwittingly spread infections.

The state provides a Home Test Giveaway (HTG) program which offers consumers a free home HIV test kit as needed. The request form for the NYS HTG is at https://survey.alchemer.com/s3/5977532/HHTG-Fall-2020-Eligibility-Survey-Live.