That the COVID-19 pandemic has had a worldwide impact on health and life in general isn’t news, but how has it affected sexual assault cases and reports of their occurrence? That is what a team of DMU researchers set to find out last year. They reported their findings at the University’s Research Symposium in December and during a Jan. 29 meeting of the Crime Victims Assistance Division of the Iowa Attorney General’s Office.
Their work revealed that multiple states across the country reported that domestic violence response calls, such as via rape crisis hotlines, had increased by 21 to 35 percent during the pandemic shutdown. However, reporting of sexual assault cases to hospitals in central Iowa decreased by nearly 40 percent in 2020 compared to the average of the previous three years.
“Our research shows that the number of cases significantly decreased in the months of March through August in 2020 compared to prior years,” said research co-author Katelyn Myers, a fourth-year osteopathic medical student, in a poster presentation of the findings. “These observations may be caused by increased barriers to seeking care brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. Future studies are warranted to investigate these barriers.”
Co-authors of the study include Rebecca Shaw, M.D., department chair of specialty medicine; Simon Geletta, Ph.D., professor of public health and vice president of the Polk County, IA, Board of Health; Alyssa Ensminger, D.O.’22; and Rachel Christenson, D.O.’23. The research project was sparked in part because Dr. Shaw serves as medical director for the Mid-Iowa Sexual Assault Reporting Team (SART), which offers forensic exams, counseling, medications and community resources to sexual assault survivors. Two years ago, she led the creation of a two-week rotation for fourth-year osteopathic students to accompany nurse evaluators when they are called upon to provide care to victims of sexual assault.
“When the pandemic started, we knew domestic violence would increase nationwide. We thought we’d see an increase in sexual assaults, but people are just not showing up to report them,” Dr. Shaw says.
The study also suggested that of the sexual assaults that had been reported in 2020, the cases tended to be more physically violent, including strangulation and weapon usage.
“These results also highlight how COVID-19 has posed a potential threat to sexual assault survivors seeking care for forensic evaluation and recovery,” Katelyn stated in her presentation. “It is vital these services be prioritized amid other health care demands of the pandemic.”
As disturbing as the study’s results are, the work reflects valuable interactions among stakeholders.
“Our presentation on Jan. 29 was well received by the board of the Crime Victims Assistance Division,” Dr. Shaw says. “Many questions were fielded, and generally I would say the members were pleasantly surprised about the collaborative efforts between SART and DMU in providing information about Polk County health issues during the pandemic.”