By Melissa Weiler Gerber
The COVID-19 pandemic has challenged our healthcare system to transform rapidly and evolve continuously to meet its relentless demands. First and ongoing, in addressing the care and treatment needs of COVID-19 patients.
Then, expanding COVID-19 testing capacity. And now, requiring innovation from healthcare leaders to ensure seamless provision of vaccines and deferred preventive healthcare services.
While some impacts of COVID-19 were felt immediately, the full impact of the pandemic in our communities continues to reveal itself gradually.
For sexual and reproductive health care, we have seen fewer patients accessing services, including visits for STI testing and treatment. This has caused concern among public health providers, considering the reported record-setting rates of STIs in Pennsylvania and across the country prior to the pandemic.
While COVID-19 vaccination efforts are underway, we expect to see more patients with undiagnosed and untreated STIs.
Considering the serious and sometimes lifelong impacts of some untreated STIs, we are proactively advocating for solutions that can reduce barriers to treatment access and help curb a potential widespread increase in STIs in our communities.
We hope one solution is on its way to becoming law in Pennsylvania – expedited partner therapy (EPT). EPT is a patient-delivered therapy where health practitioners can provide a patient with medication that they can give their sexual partner(s) to effectively treat their STI and prevent further spread.
While EPT has been deemed safe and effective by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Medical Association, Pennsylvania has not yet passed legislation explicitly permitting healthcare practitioners to provide EPT to patients.
Senate Bill 317, sponsored by Sens. Pat Browne, R-Lehigh, and Judy Schwank, D-Berks, recently passed through the state Senate, and it is now time for the state House to pass the EPT bill.
EPT would be a cost-effective method of reducing community spread of STIs at a time in which STI rates have been increasing for several years, and the COVID-19 pandemic is expected to cause rates to continue to rise. Young people are particularly affected, and are also less likely to receive treatment due to barriers in accessing a healthcare provider. Thus, they are at higher risk of reinfection and/or spreading STIs to their sexual partner(s).
We are encouraged by the bipartisan and unanimous effort to pass EPT legislation in the state Senate.
Now it is time for the state House to pass this bill and for Gov. Tom Wolf to support this cost-effective, common sense measure that will address disparities in access to STI prevention and treatment.
Melissa Weiler Gerber is president of the Alliance of Pennsylvania Councils, a non-profit organization whose mission is to develop and implement statewide service delivery systems, while emphasizing regional planning and community-based access. She writes from Camp Hill, Pa.