Health & Medicine

With STD rates skyrocketing, county funds treatment at community colleges

The rate of sexually transmitted diseases in Sacramento County — and across California — has spiked in recent years, during the same period when funds for low-cost and free medical care have declined.

A pilot program beginning in November at two campuses of the Los Rios Community College system hopes to curb some of that alarming growth in STDs by providing free access to treatment and education.

The Sacramento County Board of Supervisors recently approved a $25,000 grant to pay for a nurse to work twice a week at the health centers at Cosumnes River College and Sacramento City College to offer free screenings and treatments for sexually transmitted infections, including chlamydia, syphilis, gonorrhea and HIV.

The contract will start Nov. 1 and run through June of next year, said Sacramento County spokeswoman Brenda Bongiorno. The program is expected to serve about 1,000 students.

It’s a “stop-gap measure,” said Los Rios Community College District spokesman Gabe Ross, until the district starts receiving funds from a $20 per semester health services fee students will start paying next year. The fee, approved by the Los Rios Community College District Board of Trustees in June, is expected to bring in more than $2.5 million annually for the district to fund increased health services.

“We have a great long-term plan to begin expanding health and mental health services in a much more general way in spring but the need is urgent,” Ross said.

The number of cases of syphilis, gonorrhea and chlamydia in Sacramento County rose by 136 percent, 50 percent and 23 percent respectively between 2013 and 2017, according to the California Department of Public Health.

Out of all 58 California counties, Sacramento County had the sixth-highest rate of chlamydia, the eighth-highest rate of gonorrhea and the 10th-highest rate of primary and secondary syphilis, according to state numbers released this summer.

City College and Cosumnes River were selected to participate in the program because administrators “heard feedback from students about experiencing an urgent need,” Ross said in an email.

Along with easier access to care, the prevalence of dating apps and services — which may lead to more sexual partners — and decreased condom use may all be possible reasons for the spike in reported sexually transmitted infection cases, especially among young people, according to public health officials.

The Women’s Health Specialists, a California-based health provider, previously offered services through a contract once a week to the district’s four college campuses, according to Ross. It announced the closure of its Sacramento operation at the end of 2016 citing low Medi-Cal reimbursement rates. A representative of the clinic could not be reached for comment.

Ross said that any Los Rios student can use the new services beginning Nov. 1 for free with a student identification card, regardless of which campus they attend.

American River College student Elena DeNecochea said she is glad to hear of the new services, but thinks it is not enough.

Last fall, she went to her school’s health center to learn what women’s health care services were available, she said. The Los Rios Community College District stopped providing gynecological care in March 2017, she said she was told.

Health centers at college campuses frequently provide basic gynecological and reproductive health services, according to the American College Health Association, including Pap tests, STD screenings, pregnancy tests and prescriptions for birth control or emergency contraception.

DeNecochea was especially alarmed to learn that basic services including pregnancy tests weren’t available, she said. Her mom had returned to school with young children at home, and DeNecochea said she thinks access to care is vital to encouraging women to continue their educations.

Nurses at the health center could only offer outside referrals: DeNecochea said she was told her best option was the Planned Parenthood in North Highlands.

“It’s kind of a drive for students and is out of the way, and that’s true with most health clinics,” DeNecochea said.

Health experts also said access to early care and testing during pregnancy is crucial for healthy babies.

As rates of STDs have grown, more babies have been born with congenital syphilis passed on from their mothers, according to state data. Syphilis can be devastating for a developing fetus. Syphilis testing is a routine part of prenatal care and can be easily treated.

There were 30 stillbirths related to congenital syphilis in California in 2017, according to state data. From 2012 to 2016, the California Department of Public Health reported an over 500 percent increase in cases of congenital syphilis. California has the second highest rate of congenital syphilis in the country, 41 per 100,000 live births, as reported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Locally, there were six cases of congenital syphilis in Sacramento County in 2017.

The new tuition surcharge on community college students will help restore some health services, but allocations for which services will be funded first and to what degree — everything from mental health counselors to new lactation areas are being considered — have yet to be finalized, Ross said.

That concerns DeNecochea, who for the last year has been lobbying both her student government and the board of trustees to return campus services to previous levels. Now vice president of her college’s student senate, and president of the Feminists United Club on campus, she said the district has been dragging its feet on the issue, and that restoring services around sexually transmitted diseases at only half of the district’s campuses is “a slap in the face.”

“I think its ridiculous we can’t bring back all services like pregnancy tests or women’s contraception,” DeNecochea said. “It’s just a lot of excuses for why we can’t instead of solutions for why we can.”

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