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HIV testing dips during pandemic raise transmission concerns


HIV testing centers across the United States showed reductions in testing of nearly 50% during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, raising concerns of a subsequent increase in transmission by people unaware of their HIV-positive status.

“Testing strategies need to be ramped up to cover this decrease in testing while adapting to the continuing COVID-19 environment,” reported Deesha Patel, MPH, and colleagues with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s division of HIV prevention, Atlanta, in research presented at the annual meeting of the United States Conference on HIV/AIDS.

According to their data from the National HIV Prevention Program Monitoring and Evaluation system, the number of CDC-funded HIV tests declined by more than 1 million in 2020 amid the COVID-19 restrictions, with 1,228,142 tests reported that year, compared with 2,301,669 tests in 2019, a reduction of 46.6%.

The number of persons who were newly diagnosed with HIV, based on the tests, declined by 29.7%, from 7,692 newly diagnosed in 2019 to 5,409 persons in 2020, the authors reported.

The reasons for the reduction in new HIV diagnoses in 2020 could be multifactorial, possibly reflecting not just the reduced rates of testing but also possibly lower rates of transmission because of the lockdowns and social distancing, Mr. Patel said in an interview.

“Both [of those] interpretations are plausible, and the reductions are likely due to a combination of reasons,” she said.

Of note, the percentage of tests that were positive did not show a decline and was in fact slightly higher in 2020 (0.4%), compared with 2019 (0.3%; rate ratio, 1.32). But the increase may reflect that those seeking testing during the pandemic were more likely to be symptomatic.

“It is plausible that the smaller pool of people getting tested represented those with a higher likelihood of receiving a positive HIV test, [for instance] having a recent exposure, exhibiting symptoms,” Mr. Patel explained. “Furthermore, it is possible that some health departments specifically focused outreach efforts to serve persons with increased potential for HIV acquisition, thus identifying a higher proportion of persons with HIV.”

The declines in testing are nevertheless of particular concern in light of recent pre-COVID data indicating that as many as 13% of people who were infected with HIV were unaware of their positive status, placing them at high risk of transmitting the virus.

And on a broader level, the declines could negatively affect the goal to eradicate HIV through the federal Ending the HIV Epidemic in the U.S. (EHE) initiative, which aims to reduce new HIV infections in the United States by 90% by 2030 through the scaling up of key HIV prevention and treatment strategies, Mr. Patel noted.

“The first pillar of EHE is to diagnose all people with HIV as early as possible, and to accomplish that, there needs to be sufficient HIV testing,” Mr. Patel explained. “With fewer HIV tests being conducted, there are missed opportunities to identify persons with newly diagnosed HIV, which affects the entire continuum of care, [including] linkage to medical care, receiving antiretroviral treatment, getting and keeping viral suppression, and reducing transmission.”


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