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Sexually transmitted infection rates in Monroe County soar in 2020

As COVID-19 turned our world upside down in 2020, another health crisis was raging locally.

Last year, Monroe County recorded some of the highest increases in sexually transmitted infections (STIs) in New York, according to the state health department.

Compared to 2019, the number of gonorrhea cases (1,888) soared 77%. There were 5,382 cases of chlamydia, among the highest rates in the state outside of New York City.

In the first nine months of 2020, there were 55 people diagnosed with HIV in Monroe County. That's  as many as in each of the previous four years.

More than half of the STIs were diagnosed among people younger than 26.

"In some studies, there's actually a small decrease in numbers of sexually transmitted diseases during the toughest days of the pandemic because people were inside more," said Dr. William Valenti. "Prior to that though, when a lot of these data were generated, we were seeing this uptick and need to take it seriously."

Valenti, the co-founder of Trillium Health, outlined the data in a report he wrote for Trillium and ACT Rochester called Sexual Health in Rochester/Monroe County.

The dramatic increases in STI rates, according to the report, can be partly linked to more screening, changing transmission patterns, and decreased condom use.

But Valenti said a lack of education is also a big part of the equation.

"Many people have a disconnect between what they perceive as their risk for infection and the real risk," he explained. "The way to deal with that is to try to give people clear, understandable information so that they can make good choices."

While treatable, undiagnosed and untreated sexually transmitted diseases can cause infertility, reproductive health problems, and other long-term side effects.

Valenti encourages early, age-appropriate discussions about sexual health in schools, health care settings, and especially at home.

"One big area that is often overlooked is what goes on in the home in terms of honest and accurate discussions around sex and sexuality," he added.

He said more funding is needed for STI screening, treatment, prevention, and education.

Valenti, who has devoted his career to the treatment and study of AIDS and HIV, believes there is no longer the same sense of urgency for sex education that was present in the early days of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s.

"Now that HIV has become a more manageable illness," he said, "we look at it in different terms and the emphasis on sex, sexuality, sexually transmitted infections is just different."

According to the report, those at highest risk of STIs are young people, non-Hispanic Black individuals, and gay, bisexual and other men who have sex with men.

The prevalence of STIs is likely even higher than the data presented in the report, which says many cases of syphilis, gonorrhea, and chlamydia are undiagnosed and not reported to state or federal health departments.

Other highly prevalent STIs, including human papilloma virus (HPV), genital herpes, and trichomoniasis, are not reported at all.

Beth Adams joined WXXI as host of Morning Edition in 2012 after a more than two-decade radio career. She was the longtime host of the WHAM Morning News in Rochester. Her career also took her from radio stations in Elmira, New York, to Miami, Florida.