The COVID-19 pandemic has led to an unprecedented interruption to normal healthcare activity in 2020/2021, affecting the provision of all healthcare services, including public STI clinics.
Over the last 18 months, public STI services have re-configured services, establishing online booking systems and providing virtual appointments, in order to support service provision in line with social distancing and infection prevention control requirements resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic.
Public STI clinics have prioritised those with symptoms and who require treatment, in order to treat active infections and minimise onward transmission. The GMHS website and other resources such as www.man2man.ie and www.sexualwellbeing.ie are regularly updated to reflect current service delivery and to signpost users to the HSE list of approved STI and PrEP services.
The HSE is continuing to progress a number of initiatives that aim to reduce the level of HIV and STIs nationally and improve access to services for those in need as follows:
- The promotion of safer sex messages to the public via a range of social media platforms including Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.
- During the pandemic, the public has been advised about STI clinic restrictions and encouraged to consider safer sexual practices to reduce the risk of HIV and STI transmission.
- Guidance has been issued around sex and COVID-19 which advised the public to limit numbers of partners to reduce transmission of HIV/STIs as well as COVID-19 during the pandemic.
- Those who are symptomatic are advised to contact a clinic directly for an emergency appointment.
- Condoms are freely available to NGO partners and service providers via the National Condom Distribution (NCDS) service.
- A number of NGOs have established postal services to make condoms and lubricant accessible to service-users throughout the pandemic while venues were closed.
- Free rapid HIV testing is available in Dublin, Cork, Galway and Limerick through community NGO partners HIV Ireland, Sexual Health Centre Cork, Sexual Health West and GOSHH. NGO partners have adapted their services and are currently providing free rapid HIV testing from their offices or alternative venues.
- STI/HIV testing is currently available through a HSE home STI testing pilot project in Dublin, Wicklow, Kildare, Cork and Kerry (funded by the Sláintecare Integration Fund). This pilot commenced in early 2021, in Dublin, Cork and Kerry initially, overseen by the HSE Sexual Health and Crisis Pregnancy Programme through SH24.
As a result of high demand, and in response to the pressures imposed by a public health declared early infectious syphilis outbreak, the HSE SHCPP in consultation with my Department, have extended the pilot to additional areas (Kildare, Meath and Wicklow) and for an additional time period. The possibility of further expansion is being scoped currently, given the need for the service and its success in reaching cohorts that are typically underrepresented amongst those presenting in person at STI clinics.
As this is a service matter, I have also asked the Health Service Executive to respond to the deputy directly, as soon as possible.