For two weeks, Ryan Hook and his partner have been trying to book an appointment with a sexual health clinic in Victoria, B.C.
The clinic operates on a day-by-day basis and doesn’t take waitlists. By 7:30 a.m., Hook says all the slots are already booked.
He tried sending the clinic an email, only to receive an automated response informing him the clinic’s inbox was full.
“Our only other option at this point was going to the emergency (room),” he said. “So we’d be waiting for a long time and there’s other things to factor in like COVID-19.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has increased barriers to sexual health resources, experts say, with many clinics either reducing their hours and services or closing their doors altogether.
But another large factor in accessibility to sexual health care is a change in available resources.
Nicole Pasquino, the clinical practice director at Options for Sexual Health in Vancouver, says many nurses who work in sexual health clinics are also working in hospitals and administering vaccines for COVID-19.
In addition to this, she adds labs used to process sexually transmitted infections (STI) tests are working overtime to also manage COVID-19 tests. As a result, tests are coming in much later and people can’t access services in a time-sensitive way.
“They’re so exhausted … and what we’re seeing is our health-care system stretched to the max,” she said.
“When you talk about these hundreds of thousands of vaccinations that are happening — well, what is being missed? In order for these vaccinations to be had, something has to be put on the back burner.”
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Closures create trickle-down-effect on health care
Taryn Wahl, an education coordinator at Planned Parenthood based in Regina, Sask., says the closures of family physicians’ offices have been pushing new patients to their clinic.
The limited capacity and in-person services have created weeks of backlogged appointments, leaving those trying to access birth control vulnerable.
She says intrauterine devices (IUDs) are the most effective method of emergency contraception, but when people pick up the IUD from a pharmacist, they are struggling to get an appointment within the seven-day window it needs to be used.
Wahl adds that the inability to access birth control can lead to more unplanned pregnancies — causing a trickle-down effect.
Access to abortion has been maintained across Canada, since it was deemed an essential service early on in the pandemic.
However, there is currently no data on the number of abortions conducted in the past year since there is often a two year delay on information.
“All I know is that it seems like the rates and the people who are requesting pregnancy termination and the systems within that are much higher than it used to be,” said Wahl.
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Britt Neron, the health promotion officer at Action Canada for Sexual Health and Rights, says people in the sexual health sector are bracing for the impacts of the current lack of resources.
“And all these barriers are significantly more pronounced for people in violent home situations, those without provincial or territorial health coverage and those without access to public transit or vehicles,” Neron said.
Barriers for marginalized communities
In Vancouver, Pasquino says populations who were already vulnerable are suffering the most during the COVID-19 pandemic because they have the least access to care.
Financial stress caused by the pandemic can also force people to neglect their sexual health needs, she adds.
“We’ve had people at our door in tears. Like ‘Should I buy my birth control this month, or should I buy my food next week?” she said.
Though it varies from province to province, many sexual health clinics aren’t currently offering routine screening or most STI testing, reducing their services to high-risk clients and relying on Telehealth services.
“But maybe you don’t have a phone, right? Maybe you’re used to accessing through your school-based clinic which no longer operates? Maybe you don’t have a secure place where you can call someone?” Pasquino said.
She adds while abortion services are still active and available, accessibility decreases when you take into account things like lockdowns or people with precarious immigration status.
Additionally, people experiencing trauma or violence within their relationships can face more barriers to accessing care.
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A United Nations Population Fund projection released in May last year that said 31 million additional cases of gender-based violence worldwide “can be expected if the lockdown continues for at least six months.”
Global News previously reported that support centres and shelters have been grappling with the problem of safety for people experiencing domestic abuse during the COVID-19 pandemic.
People are being told to stay at home, but their homes may not be safe.
Pasquino recently had one patient who received a birth control shot and expressed how thankful she was that the centre was open.
“And the reason that this individual accesses birth control this way is because their partner won’t allow them to be on birth control … So for that person, it’s a huge safety issue,” she said.
Pasquino adds that though the system is stretched, people still need to think actively about their sexual health since things like STIs and unplanned pregnancies don’t go away during a pandemic.
“Sexual health impacts all people at all stages in their life. And so we need to try to ensure that that doesn’t get interrupted to keep some kind of normalcy in people’s health.”
— With files from Jane Gerster
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