“In 2020, we hoped that the COVID pandemic would only last a few months. However, as it continued, we became increasingly concerned about limited health care access for survivors of sexual assault throughout the ongoing crisis,” study author Katherine A. Muldoon, PhD, MPH, a senior clinical research associate at the Ottawa Hospital Research Institute in Ontario, told this news organization.
“Unexpectedly, we found a 20%-25% increase in the number of survivors of sexual assault presenting for emergency care before the lockdown protocols were enacted,” she added. “After lockdown, the numbers dropped by 50%-60% and fluctuated throughout ... the pandemic.”
As they develop new lockdown protocols, public health officials and governments should incorporate warnings of the risks of violence and state that survivors should still present for urgent care when needed, said Dr. Muldoon. “COVID-19 lockdown protocols have limited access to health care for survivors worldwide, and barriers are likely greater in low-resource settings and those heavily affected by COVID-19.”
The study was published in JAMA Network Open.
Both sexes affected
The researchers analyzed linked health administrative data from 197 EDs in Ontario from January 2019 to September 2021. They used 10 bimonthly time periods to compare differences in the frequency and rates of ED visits for sexual assault in 2020-2021 (during the pandemic), compared with baseline prepandemic rates in 2019.
Sexual assault was defined by 27 ICD-10 procedure and diagnoses codes.
More than 14 million ED presentations occurred during the study period, including 10,523 for sexual assault. The median age was 23 years for female patients and 15 years for males. Most encounters (88.4%) were among females.
During the 2 months before the pandemic (Jan. 11 to Mar. 10, 2020), the rates of ED encounters for sexual assault among females were significantly higher than prepandemic levels (8.4 vs. 6.9 cases per 100,000; age-adjusted rate ratio [aRR], 1.22), whereas during the first 2 months of the pandemic (Mar. 11 to May 10, 2020), rates were significantly lower (4.2 vs. 8.3 cases per 100,000; aRR, 0.51).
Among males, rates were higher during the 2 months before the pandemic, but not significantly different, compared with prepandemic levels (1.2 vs. 1.0 cases per 100,000; aRR, 1.19). However, the rates decreased significantly during the first 2 months of the pandemic (0.5 vs. 1.2 cases per 100,000; aRR, 0.39).
For the 12 months starting July 11, 2020, rates were the same as in 2019. In the final time period (July 11 to Sept. 10, 2021), however, the rates were significantly higher than during prepandemic levels (1.5 vs. 1.1 cases per 100,000; aRR, 1.40).
Further analyses showed a similar pattern for all age groups, community sizes, and income quintiles. Rates were predominantly above prepandemic levels for the 2 months leading up to the pandemic and below expected levels from the beginning of the pandemic onward. However, from July 11 to Sept. 10, 2020 (during a trough in the summer, when sexual assaults are generally higher), and from May 11 to Sept. 10, 2021 (also during a trough and the summer), the rates returned to prepandemic levels.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has caused many changes to society and health care delivery and access,” the authors wrote. “We recommend that the decision-making regarding the management of the COVID-19 pandemic include antiviolence considerations to evaluate how policies and protocols affect the risk of violence and ensure that those who need health care can access services without concern.”
“Specialized and trauma-informed clinics are the best solution for encouraging survivors to come for urgent care following a sexual assault,” said Dr. Muldoon. “Clinicians should be prepared and trained to provide the best possible care for survivors of violence and ensure that getting care is not retraumatizing. Fostering conversations about the common experience of violence and destigmatizing those exposed to violence remain the most important ways to create safer spaces and societies.”