Dear Dr. Etches,
First off, on behalf of MAX Ottawa, I wish to extend my sincere gratitude for the work and great efforts you and the rest of the Ottawa Public Health team have expended to ensure the health, safety, and well-being of our communities in these challenging and unprecedented times. It has been a comfort knowing that Ottawans could benefit from the strong leadership and innovative work of our public health officials.
I write you now hoping to commence a dialogue as to how and when the delivery of sexual health testing services throughout Ottawa can be scaled up to meet current demand. In light of COVID-19, it is understandable that the services our communities have been accustomed to accessing have either been curtailed or suspended to allow public health staff to roll out a comprehensive response to the virus.
I wish to inform you that, since March, many of our clients have reached out to MAX Ottawa staff indicating concern about the limited accessibility of sexual health testing and services in the region since the pandemic took hold. Furthermore, despite physical distancing guidelines, we have become aware that many members of the communities we serve have nonetheless continued to engage in sexual activity resulting in the transmission of sexually transmitted and blood-borne infections (STBBIs) for which testing and treatment are required.
My colleagues at comparable organizations throughout the country have identified similar challenges in the regions that they serve and have begun to amass a body of evidence pointing to the heightened vulnerability of guys into guys during the course of the pandemic (https://www.cbrc.net/mental_sexual_health_impacts _of_covid_19_on_queer_men).
Locally, it is my understanding that testing services throughout Ottawa and the surrounding areas have been considerably curtailed since March 2020. Not only has the Gay Zone clinic at Centretown Community Health Centre ceased operations altogether, the Sexual Health Centre is only offering appointments and no walk-in services whatsoever.
As I am sure you can appreciate, the current level of service delivery is restrictive and leaves many vulnerable as they are without the means to access the care that is needed, especially for the treatment of symptoms, access to contraception for trans-identifying person, as well as access to PrEP and PEP. This leaves me with the distinct belief that following COVID-19, there will be a drastic surge in the demand for services to respond to untreated infections and other urgent needs. And to date, I and my community-based-organization colleagues alike have yet to be informed by Ottawa Public Health as to when we can anticipate the resumption of sexual health testing services.
Even so, MAX Ottawa has innovated to support testing services during the pandemic. We have partnered with the OHTN to support the delivery of the soon-to-be-launched HIV self-testing project throughout Ottawa. We act as a community partner of the HIV testing pilot project operated through Shoppers Drug Mart (https://getatest.ca/shoppers-drug-mart/). And we strive to keep guys into guys aware of available sexual health testing in the region during the pandemic (https://maxottawa.ca/covid19/). While there has been uptake of these services, more can certainly be done.
In light of the foregoing, and with the hope of supporting a valuable community partner, I wish to extend to Ottawa Public Health an invitation to engage in a constructive dialogue with the goal of supporting the progressive resumption of services in the region. If MAX Ottawa can be of assistance in another fashion, we come to the table more than willing to assist so that all members of the communities in which we live have access to the services they need.