Distractions From COVID: Syphilis in Oregon

Amidst a recent discussion in Marion County about the unsettling climb in COVID-19 cases reported in the state, Marion County commissioners had little to say about the virus itself.  

Instead, Commissioners Danielle Bethell and Colm Willis, alongside Marion County Public Health Division director Katrina Rothenberger, were concerned about the recent increase in sexually transmitted diseases — specifically syphilis — in Marion County.  

In an interview with the Statesman Journal, Rothenberger claimed that the increase in STDs had been laid on the sidelines “because we have all been focused on COVID.” She also noted that Marion County had the first stillbirth due to syphilis ever recorded in Oregon just before the beginning of the pandemic.  

While COVID is the primary health concern and has been for well over a year now, Marion County commissioners felt that the virus shouldn’t be the sole focus. “These other diseases can also be deadly,” said Willis. “A person is just as dead if they die from syphilis as if they die from COVID.”  

Yet that wasn’t the focus of the meeting. It was meant to focus on the record-breaking climb in COVID-related deaths and hospitalizations, as well as the importance of vaccinations.   

As of Tuesday, Aug. 24, Oregon has over 1,000 people being treated for the coronavirus’ delta variant. Both ICU and non-ICU beds are at over 90% capacity in the state, with hospitals in some areas filled to capacity.  

To put those numbers in perspective, multiple local hospitals in Benton County have asked for public assistance in dealing with the shortage of hospital beds.  

While STDs are a genuine concern for public health, it’s less clear how they’re to take precedence over a virus that has been ravaging the world for well over a year now. This is made especially confusing, considering that Marion County reported 464 new cases of COVID and four deaths shortly before the meeting took place.   

The county commissioners have strongly urged those who are unvaccinated to get the vaccine. It’s lifesaving, free medicine available to every member of the public — a rarity in America. And with the county averaging 128 new cases a day since the beginning of August and only 66.6% of people above the age of 18 vaccinated, it’s definitely needed.   

So what makes syphilis such a concern for Marion County? According to the OHA, the county reported 96 cases of syphilis in 2019 with a county population of just under 350,000.   

By Ethan Hauck