Poverty, social media and COVID-related boredom could be behind the 31% rise in sexually transmitted infections in Wyoming in 2021, according to public health official in the state.
The Wyoming Department of Health announced Wednesday that chlamydia cases in the state jumped by 23.6% in 2021 from their 2020 figure. Gonorrhea cases went up by 33.5% and syphilis cases went up by 35.5% during the same timeframe.
The increase could be even higher due to cases being underreported: fewer people were tested for sexually transmitted infections (STIs) that year, the department reported.
STIs are on the rise nationwide, Dr. Mark Dowell, Natrona County public health officer, told Cowboy State Daily on Thursday.
Dowell said a rise in STIs usually correlates with a rise in sexual activity and promiscuity. He speculated that more people may have had non-monogamous sex in 2021 due to COVID-shutdown-related boredom, unemployment, and more time on the Internet and on social media.
“People have a lot more free time on their hands,” said Dowell. “A lot of people have lost jobs, and they’re not being as careful.”
Social media “hookup” sites have also played a role in rising STIs since the sites became prevalent, Dowell added.
Fremont First, Then Urban Centers
Neither 2021 nor 2022 STI regional statistics were immediately available Thursday, but in 2020, Fremont County led the state in its two most-common STIs: chlamydia and gonorrhea.
Poverty is a leading factor in the county’s high infection rate, said Dowell.
“It’s a social thing in a poverty-stricken area. Just like in inner cities where we see a lot of STIs – we certainly see that in poverty,” he said, adding that poverty often brings complex living situations and less-safe social scenarios.
About 16% of Fremont County lives in poverty, according to indexmundi.com, which ranked Albany County (Laramie) as having a greater percentage of people living under the poverty line, at 20.4%.
Albany County, however, contains the University of Wyoming. Poverty rates in college towns could be inflated by college students who are not employed, according to census.gov.
Laramie County (Cheyenne) had more gonorrhea cases total than Fremont, and both Laramie and Natrona Counties (Casper) had more chlamydia cases than Fremont had in 2020.
However, Fremont County had a higher rate that year than any other county in both of those infections, with a rate of about 0.6% in chlamydia and 0.2% in gonorrhea.
Syphilis cases were minimal across the state in 2020, with no cases in several counties and seven, the highest number, in Fremont County. Niobrara County had the highest rate of syphilis with two cases, and a rate of 0.08%.
Natrona County had the second-highest rate for chlamydia infections in 2020, at about 0.55%. Albany County came in third with 0.43%; and Laramie County had the fourth-most at 0.34%.
Dowell said Albany County likely has a lot of sexual activity because there are so many young college students.
Gonorrhea isn’t as common in Wyoming so it’s a bit of a wildcard, said Dowell, but the infection had its second-highest 2020 rate in Laramie County, at 0.15%, and could have arrived on the interstate.
Though poverty is a leading driver of STI rates, interstates are another, as they bring in new sexual partners, said Dowell
“My theory has always been, there are a lot of bars (in Cheyenne), a lot of transportation through that area and it’s on two major interstates,” he said.
Dowell said he wanted to deliver a bit of good news: HIV cases have been abating.
“We’re only seeing an occasional new diagnosis of HIV,” he said.
Dowell gave two main reasons for that.
“One, people are smarter in terms of risk. The other (reason) is people are either taking the prep (prophylactic) or using protection or having sex with people that have HIV but are on their medicines, and well controlled.”
Dowell said some people are simply being forthright about the disease – but not all.
“Some behavior is not going to change. But if people are honest enough to say ‘Yeah, I have HIV and my virus has not been detected for five years,’ then the risk to the person having sex with them is incredibly small.”
Dowell said the new numbers are “a huge change” from the much-higher levels of new HIV diagnoses he witnessed at the beginning of his 30-year career practicing medicine in Wyoming.
So far in 2022 there have been approximately 982 cases of chlamydia in Wyoming, 175 cases of gonorrhea and 35 cases of syphilis reported.
In 2020 there were 1,943 cases of chlamydia total, 389 cases of gonorrhea, and 31 cases of syphilis reported by the end of the year, compared with 2021’s figures of about 2,402 (chlamydia), 519 (gonorrhea), and 42 (syphilis), according to a numerical analysis of Wyoming Department of Health data announced Wednesday.