After an unprecedented push to test and track the coronavirus, public health workers are grappling with a worrisome side effect: a collapse in screening for sexually transmitted diseases that have been on the rise for years.

Testing for diseases such as chlamydia and gonorrhea plummeted in many parts of the United States last year as covid-19 sapped resources and staff. Health officials say this testing gap left them unable to track or control outbreaks of the diseases, which were at record levels before the pandemic.

“It’s clear there have been mass disruptions to testing, surveillance and clinical care and that’s likely making sexually transmitted infections worse than ever,” said David Harvey, executive director of the National Coalition of STD Directors, which represents state and local health workers.

Many STD clinics shut their doors or slashed their hours during the health restrictions last spring. Staff members who previously helped track the infections were reassigned to focus on covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. And labs that process most STD tests were forced to ration supplies to focus on the flood of incoming samples for covid-19.

Survey data from Harvey’s group shows that even in January this year, 40 percent of STD programs were still operating with reduced staff due to covid-19. That has led to cutbacks in services to find and fight infections that can often spread with little or no immediate symptoms.

Analyzing data from a national lab service, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention officials said in September that tests for chlamydia, gonorrhea and syphilis were down between 30 percent to 50 percent last spring compared with the previous year, before recovering somewhat in early summer.

Doctors typically discuss and screen for STDs as part of routine care for sexually active adults and teenagers. Annual testing for common infections is recommended for high-risk groups, including women under 25 and gay and bisexual men. STD clinics often provide free or low-cost testing and counseling.

The CDC has warned that STDs have been rising steadily for five years, hitting a record number of syphilis, gonorrhea and chlamydia cases in 2018. Officials attribute the trend to increases in unstable housing, drug use and social stigma, along with cuts to sexual education and public health budgets.

Left untreated, STDs can have serious long-term health complications. Chlamydia can damage the male and female reproductive system and lead to pregnancy complications. Syphilis can also lead to pregnancy problems, infections in newborns and — if not treated with antibiotics — organ damage and neurological problems in both men and women.

The CDC continues to report lower-than-normal supplies for some test kits and laboratory chemicals used for STD screening, which overlap with covid-19 supplies. The CDC says providers may need to prioritize testing for the highest-risk groups, including pregnant women with multiple sex partners and sexually active gay and bisexual men.

The testing disruptions have led to workarounds at many STD clinics, including initial online consultations for those with symptoms and at-home sample collection for diseases such as chlamydia and gonorrhea. Recently, U.S. officials approved the first point-of-care test for those two infections that can be used at doctor’s offices and deliver results in about 30 minutes.

— Associated Press