(ATLANTA) — The number of HIV tests and people diagnosed with the virus dropped significantly during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to new federal data.
The report, published Thursday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, looked at data from two commercial laboratories and found decreases during the first half of 2020.
Between April and June 2020, in the early months of the pandemic, about 1.68 million HIV tests were performed, a 33% decline from the 2.52 million tests performed during the same period in 2019.
As a result, fewer people were diagnosed with HIV. During the first six months of 2019, 18,919 people tested positive for HIV. By comparison, 14,666 people received an HIV diagnosis during the same six-month period of 2020.
Rebounds were seen in late 2020, but not returns to pre-pandemic levels. From October to December 2020, 2.27 million HIV tests were performed and 7,758 people received positive diagnoses.
The use of pre-exposure prophylaxis, or PrEP — a daily pill containing two medications that prevent HIV-negative patients from being infected — saw just a slight drop in the first half of 2020.
A total of 179,280 prescriptions were written from April to June 2020, a 6% drop from January to March 2020. However, by September, the number of prescriptions had surpassed pre-pandemic levels.
“I think most people would agree that those kinds of drops are mostly attributable to the complete disruption of medical services that appeared early in the COVID-19 pandemic,” Dr. Uriel Felsen, medical director for HIV testing at the Montefiore AIDS Center in New York City, told ABC News.
When cities and states across the country issued lockdowns and stay-at-home orders, this resulted in the closure of non-emergency health care services, which limited the number of HIV tests performed and number of PrEP prescriptions written, the CDC report stated.
Additionally, people fearful of contracting COVID-19 avoided doctors’ offices or hospitals, where they may have received care. Also, millions of people lost health insurance after being laid off from their jobs, limiting their ability to access care.
“It’s absolutely alarming that the services were disrupted this profoundly,” Felsen said. “Overall, there were more missed diagnoses and the more time people go without getting tested, the more time they have to transmit HIV unbeknownst to themselves.”
The authors noted that the COVID-19 public health emergency laid bare the need to deliver HIV services outside of traditional settings.
Felsen agreed and said, for example, he is part of a team at his hospital investigating a new strategy to try and improve PrEP access by prescribing it in emergency departments directly to those who are at risk.
“It has really reminded us that we need to be able to implement HIV prevention in a diverse array of settings so that, in cases where services are so extremely disrupted, people are still getting the care that they need, because the HIV epidemic didn’t stop because of COVID,” Felsen said.
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