Since the COVID-19 pandemic started in the province, Sexual Health Nova Scotia is trying to handle existing problems that have started worsening.
Its problems are partly due to the provincial government’s lack of funding and support for sexual health.
“It felt like sexual health services were not sort of considered essential,” Leigh Heide tells NEWS 95.7’s The Sheldon MacLeod Show.
Sexual Health Nova Scotia encompasses a network of six sexual health centres across the province. Only the Halifax Sexual Health Centre (HSHC) has a clinic, meaning all patients from across the province seeking sexual health services are being referred to Halifax.
Heide, the provincial coordinator at Sexual Health Nova Scotia, says handling the demand from the six sexual health centres was difficult even prior to the pandemic.
For the most part, there are no other sexual health clinics in Nova Scotia besides the Halifax location located inside the Bayers Road Centre near Fairview. Patients seeking services such as STI testing, pap tests and gender-affirming care can’t be treated in most parts of rural Nova Scotia without a family doctor.
Recently, the Truro Sexual Health Centre was started by two doctors. According to CBC News, the centre is open one evening a week for three hours.
Although the opening of the Truro’s centre has helped alleviate the high demand of services, Heide says the clinic is still overwhelmed.
Once the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Heide says the Nova Scotia Health Authority closed the STI clinic at the Queen Elizabeth II Health Sciences Centre on University Avenue (it’s now open for appointments only). Other walk-in clinics and facilities had also limited services.
HSHC has stayed open since the pandemic started but also with slightly limited services, including no walk-ins and having testing affected by what its lab could process.
“It kind of built up a backlog of people who couldn’t get in,” Heide says. “Now, put those things together as we reopen to all services again and they’re just very overwhelmed.”
HSHC has different streams of funding including funds from MSI, some small project grants and a part of an annual provincial grant Sexual Health Nova Scotia receives. This $300,000 grant isn’t guaranteed and must be applied for each year. Sexual Health Nova Scotia also distributes the grant between its six centres.
Heide says around $30,000 is allocated to HSHC each year; Running the clinic costs around $700,000.
“It’s a huge issue and they all need more funding, all of our centres,” says Heide. “[With] Halifax’s clinic being so essential to our whole province, we really recognize how much they need the extra funding right now.”
Heide says people even show up to the emergency room for an STI test. Since there isn’t a doctor to follow up with patients, much like with walk-in clinics, STI tests aren’t always provided.
On top of that, Heide says Sexual Health Nova Scotia receives inconsistent reports from people about the availability of STI testing at different locations.
“It’s extremely unfortunate to think that it’s inconsistent across the province,” Heide says.
“We have a hard time telling people what to expect. Really, without a family doctor, there is no guarantee that you’re going to be able to get the test you need.”
With a lot of people unable to enter a clinic for a sexual health service, Heide says they think that has just become worse with the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We’re really concerned about the impact of that,” Heide says. “As time goes on, we’re going to see what the impact has been.
“We talk, I guess, about STI testing and the like because it feels like something a lot of people can relate to. But there are so many services that Halifax Sexual Health Centre and all of our centres offer that are outside of even what people are thinking about on a daily basis.”
On top of STI testing, Sexual Health Nova Scotia centres offer various services including pregnancy testing, educational resources and transgender health services.
Heide says even before the COVID-19 pandemic, the waitlist at HSHC to see a doctor for gender-affirming care was months long. They say they believe it’s currently about a seven-month waitlist.
Heide says they think the provincial government still hasn’t responded to Sexual Health Nova Scotia’s needs.
“It’s a bit of a time-sensitive thing,” Heide says, “but at the same time we know that of course, their focus is just not on sexual health, and we need it to be. But we’re also looking at how the province is handling every aspect of coming back from the pandemic.
“It’s just a really big problem that needs a lot of attention.”