The pandemic has touched just about every portion of American life, exposed some of our greatest disparities and opened the door to new challenges. For many healthcare workers that means an uptick in things they thought the country had a grip on.
"This is not just like an issue. It's a crisis," said Dr. Mati Hlatshwayo Davis, the director of health in St. Louis, Missouri.
The U.S. had made strides against sexually transmitted infections like congenital syphilis in the early 2000s.
Dr. Davis says those gains have disappeared.
"We had a hyper focus on COVID that took away our ability to really prioritize and understand that other aspects of health don't go away," said Davis.
According to the CDC, by the end of 2020 syphilis among newborns, which is generally passed during pregnancy, was up nearly 15% from 2019 and 254% from 2016.
40% of babies born to women with untreated syphilis can be stillborn or die from the infection. Those that do survive face challenges.
Dr. Anna Maya Powell is co-director at Johns Hopkins HIV Women's Program.
"An untreated case of congenital syphilis can result in things like brain or bone malformations, that can cause blindness over time or organ damage," said Powell.
Experts point to a myriad of reasons for the uptick: for one, people stopped getting checkups in 2020, or relied on telemedicine, which could miss a diagnosis.
Another hurdle was that public resources for combating STIs were often diverted to COVID response.
According to Dr. Powell, the congruent opioid epidemic didn't help.
"Pregnant patients who are using substances during pregnancy — They're less likely to come in for prenatal care," said Powell.
There are also inconsistencies in healthcare requirements. According to the CDC only 13 states and DC require all patients to undergo syphilis testing in both the first and third trimesters. Eight states don't require testing at all.
Davis says none of that matters if a patient doesn't have access to care in the first place. It's an issue disproportionately facing ethnic minorities.
"We're seeing the same pattern, not just in STIs, but across all disease states. So that says it's not just about the genes. It's not about the specific disease. It's not about the specific issue. It's about those fundamental structural issues that need to be addressed," said Davis.
Doctors tell Newsy one of the first ways to address the issue is to get rid of stigma, making the STI conversation routine in doctor visits. Another solution is making sure partners are also treated for STIs. These are simple steps — but also things they say require funding.