Sexually transmitted diseases continue to rise for at least the fifth year in a row, according to information from the Utah County Health Department.
Each of the four major STDs tracked by the health department increased last year from previous five-year averages, making STDs some of the most-diagnosed infectious diseases in 2018 in Utah County.
There were 1,257 reported cases of chlamydia last year, making a chlamydia diagnosis more common than influenza, which had 1,203 reported cases. 2018 continued chlamydia’s upward climb from a five-year average of 999 cases a year from 2011 to 2017.
There were 225 cases of gonorrhea last year, up from the five-year average of 135.8 cases a year. Reported diagnoses of HIV and syphilis more than doubled from their five-year averages. There were 22 new, reported cases of HIV last year, compared to a five-year average of 10.8 cases a year, and 36 cases of syphilis in 2018, compared to a five-year average of 15.2 cases a year.
In 2013, there were 772 cases of chlamydia in Utah County, 68 for gonorrhea, seven new cases of HIV and five reported cases of syphilis.
More women than men were diagnosed with chlamydia in 2018, while men had the majority of the reported gonorrhea, syphilis and HIV diagnoses.
HIV and syphilis have increased in Utah County especially among the population of men who have sex with men.
Kristine Black, a registered nurse in epidemiology at the Utah County Health Department, said she’s seen increases in syphilis locally within the last year and HIV within the last two.
“I can’t keep up,” Black said. “I’ve had to give up other responsibilities just to focus on syphilis,” Black said.
She said people can be unaware of how serious an STD can be, or that they can be infected and not show symptoms.
“I think most, if not the majority of those who don’t seek regular, routine screening, it is because of a lack of education,” Black said.
But despite screenings, some STDs are continuing to go undetected in Utah County due to incomplete testing. Black said chlamydia and gonorrhea can be contracted orally, urethrally and anally, but that many doctors don’t ask patients about their sexual preferences and will only do a urine test, missing gonorrhea and chlamydia that have infected other bodily sites. Black said the STDs then go undetected, and patients continue engaging in sexual contact with partners believing they are clean.
“That has been a big concern,” Black said.
Black said she’s asked clients if they’ve received anal testing at clinics, and have been told that doctors neither asked nor offered to perform it.
Routine STD testing — including anal swabs for those who have anal sex — is recommended every six months. It’s recommended for every three months for those who are considered higher risk, including people who have sex with anonymous partners.
The Health Department suggests not waiting to show symptoms of an infection before getting tested.
“One of the things we see is if there’s no signs or symptoms, then people seem to think that maybe they don’t have an infection,” said Tracy Harding, a registered nurse in epidemiology at the Utah County Health Department.
Black doesn’t have concrete information on why STD cases continue to rise across the board, but asks clients if they are using internet sites or apps to contact their sexual partners.
“Our thought is that increased accessibility to an anonymous sexual partner could easily be a factor increasing the rates,” Black said.
But what much of it comes down to, Black said, is a lack of education about STDs and how serious they can become if they are untreated.
“There is some deficit in their health awareness,” Black said. “If they are going to participate in these behaviors, then they need to be responsible for their health, as well as the health of the partners that they are having sexual contact with, and get the routine testing.”
Harding said the health department can contact a client’s sexual partners to get them tested and treated. It’s done anonymously, so partners do not know the client’s name.
“I think people are hesitant to give their partner information so we can get the partners treated so they don’t spread the infection,” Harding said.
Four years ago Georg Wardell showed up to Orem High School to find dead grass, pine trees and a greenhouse that was a wreck.
Today, there are plants popping up where the dead grass used to grow, basil fertilized by koi floats on foam in the greenhouse and a cluster of pumpkins are expected to be ready in time for Halloween. It’s taken a lot of work, but about 500 students — nearly a third of Orem High School’s study body — are now enrolled in an agriculture class.
“We are growing, and it speaks to the students’ want to know where their food comes from,” said Wardell, an agriculture teacher at the school and the advisor for its chapter of the National FFA Organization.
Succulents and daisies grow in the school’s greenhouse, tucked behind the football field. Outside, apricot and peach trees mature in a miniature orchard alongside grapes climbing up a chain link fence.
Despite shrinking farmland in Utah County, the agriculture classes are increasing in popularity at Orem High School. The school has added a second agriculture teacher to teach animal classes, and has added an aquaculture class after students expressed interest in the topic.
It’s a trend that is extending across Utah as the state has gained nine and a half new agriculture teaching positions in schools this year.
Orem High School offers agriculture classes such as plant science, animal science and flower design to students for science credit. Wardell said the classes teach principles such as chemistry and biology in a hands-on way.
“The applied method is different when you can touch it with your hands,” he said.
It’s that approach that attracted Morgan Williams, a senior, to the classes.
“I had so much fun in Mr. Wardell’s class that I’m now in three of them,” she said.
Williams didn’t know about agriculture before she started the classes, but took it because she needed science credit. Now, she loves it.
“I think it’s just how hands-on it is,” Williams said. “Every time you’re going to the greenhouse, you’re doing something.”
Chris Clements, a senior, first took an agriculture class because it looked like an interesting way to fulfill his science requirements. He became more involved, and became the reason the school has an aquaculture class.
It’s something he said many students don’t experience in an urban area.
“People don’t know how plants work,” he said.
It’s the first year the school has offered its animal classes.
“I feel like there was a desire for the animal side,” said Ashley Jensen, the school’s second agriculture teacher.
Jensen had previously taught in the Nebo School District and was nervous about how Orem students would embrace agriculture.
“These kids don’t see farms on their everyday drive,” she said.
She teaches her students about the science side of agriculture, and attributes the program’s success to Wardell.
“He has put a lot of work to make it different than other greenhouses,” Jensen said.
Wardell said he appreciates that there’s greenhouses across the Alpine School District.
“The support of the district is huge,” he said. “Every new school that opens, they have an ag program.”
Tens of thousands of story-lovers attended the Timpanogos Storytelling Festival, one of the largest events of its kind in the country, this weekend at Thanksgiving Point’s Ashton Gardens. But the festival’s roots are much more humble.
The first Timpanogos Storytelling Festival took place 30 years ago in the backyard of Karen and Alan Ashton. Among the first attendees where Debi Richan and her husband.
Richan said she was hesitant at first about going to the festival — her husband had read about the event in the paper — but when her husband offered to take the day off work to check it out, Richan said she jumped at the chance. While their four children were in school, Richan and her husband sat in the front row that first day. Then they came back the second day, and the third day.
“And we’ve been there ever since,” Richan said.
At the time, Richan’s had four young children: an 11-year-old, a 9-year-old and twin 2-year-olds. Richan described herself at the time as a “mess,” and said she was struggling with feelings of depression. The festival, and one story performed at the festival in particular, changed her life.
The story was about a rabbi who had a dream where he met God, and God asked him why he wasn’t true to himself.
“That was such an eye opener to me,” Richan said. “At the time, my whole focus was mothering with children, mothering with children, and I wasn’t thinking about what I needed as a human being. I needed to be a storyteller and this festival gave me that opening.”
Following the festival, Richan said she approached her oldest daughter’s sixth-grade teacher and said she was a storyteller and would like to tell stories. The teacher invited Richan to come back every Friday morning and share stories about the world.
“I didn’t know what to think,” Richan said. “But a sixth grade audience will teach you how to tell stories.”
Richan told stories every Friday for the rest of the school year. As time went on, she said more and more people would come to the classroom to hear her, and more and more people asked her to come tell stories in their classroom, or at the library, until she was telling stories all over Utah Valley. Richan worked as a storyteller for 25 years, including performing at the Timpanogos Storytelling Festival. The only teller who has performed more at the festival more than her, Richan said, is Donald Davis.
Richan retired after her father passed away and she began to care for her mother, who has Alzheimer’s. For now, she said she’s happy to be behind the scenes and working with the other storytellers, who have become like family.
“The festival itself becomes a real family reunion,” Richan said. “We haven’t seen each other for a while, we hug, and they love the audiences here in Utah Valley. They’re so warm, they’re so welcoming.”
One of the tellers, Richan said, described the attitude surrounding the festival and its audience as a “culture of kindness.”
“(Storytelling) is how we think, and when we share our lives, we think it unites us, it brings us close together,” Richan said. “I think that’s the amazing thing about the festival is the community that is created. People will sit down next to strangers, start conversations ... it’s really remarkable to see that happen.”
That connection, and feeling like a part of something bigger, is one of the things festival volunteer Janessa James loves most as well.
At 24 years old, James said the only festival she’s missed in her lifetime is the one when she only a few years old — her birthday is Aug. 29. Before that, James’ mother volunteered at the very first festival and in the years leading up to James’ birth, and since then, James said her whole family has attended every year, even after moving to Virginia when James was a teenager.
“It’s just a really unique experience that I haven’t found anywhere else,” James said. “(It) really makes me feel like I’m part of this big human family.”
James returned to Utah and is now a student at BYU studying sociology and economics. Despite her whole family being heavily involved, James said none of them are tellers.
“I have the worst stage fright ever,” James said.
However, within her family, James said they do tell stories in a way. It’s more about learning to communicate, James said, and it’s also about learning to listen. She said part of the reason she loves to volunteer for the festival is because she feels it does a great service to the people who attend.
“Children all over Utah ... learn how to tell their own stories and learn from other cultures, as well as adults and people who come to the festival every year,” James said. “I think it’s really important to say that people are able to understand and have the ability to tell their own stories.”
After all, James said, that was Karen Ashton’s original vision, that families learn to tell their own stories to be able to pass on to their children. And while she isn’t a teller herself, James said growing up with the storytelling festival has shaped the way she interacts and communicates with people, and she believes it’s made her more empathetic towards others.
“It was interesting to grow up and hear how other people live and how similar we are in our differences,” James said. “It’s really helped me grow as a person and as an individual to recognize the humanity in us all and recognize that everyone has differences but we’re all united in our stories.”
Storyteller Carmen Deedy summed up what’s unique about storytelling and why it creates that connection: “Story is the one discipline that allows you to see yourself in the person telling the story. Even if there is absolutely no other point of reference between you and that person ... we have known for that moment exactly what they felt like.”
Storytelling, Deedy said, offers people passports into worlds they might otherwise have never entered.
“We have all kinds of people, all kinds of tellers, from all walks of life, from all faiths,” Deedy said. “And the thing that binds us all together is the humanity of our stories.”
From the humble beginnings of the Ashton’s backyard, featuring three local tellers, the festival has grown to fill the Ashton Gardens at Thanksgiving Point, and now features dozens of tellers from all over the country, and even the world — but, for Richan and James, it continues to be about finding that common thread of humanity.
“It’s sad, and it’s funny, and it’s heartwarming,” James said. “Listening to stories from different times, and different cultures, and different perspectives, different religions, different family values, it was really, really amazing to grow up and hear ... It’s just a unique experience that I haven’t found anywhere else.”
Being outside has historically been a part of Latino culture for generations. While Latinos are not always represented in mainstream conservation groups and movements, groups around the state and the nation are working to change that.
For State Rep. Mark Archuleta Wheatley, D-Murray, the outdoors has always been a part of his life. His mother’s family had lived in New Mexico for generations, and hunting and fishing were a regular pastime. Conservation was a natural extension of that.
Wheatley now serves as a board member for HECHO, or Hispanics Enjoying Camping, Hunting and the Outdoors, an organization that works to get more Latinos involved in the outdoors and conservation policy.
One challenge to Latinos specific to Utah, Wheatley said, is that, particularly for those who moved here from another country and are new to the state, they may have barriers that others may not have.
“A lot of families new to Utah, their families are so busy working,” Wheatley said. “And there’s a cost issue. A lot of the equipment is very expensive.”
Conservation and stewardship is an integral part of Latino heritage, said Chela Garcia, director of conservation for the Hispanic Access Foundation. When it comes to mainstream conservation movements, Latinos are often underrepresented, though that doesn’t mean they don’t care about outdoor issues.
“It doesn’t mean we aren’t activated on issues,” Garcia said. “But we aren’t reflected in representation.”
Latinos have cared about conservation and environmental issues for generations, Garcia said.
“This isn’t anything new in our community,” Garcia said. “We might be just getting handed the mike a little more often. We care about it, and it’s important that our voice is not only heard, but represented. Representation really does matter.”
One major value you see in Latinx families is spending time with family and friends, said Olivia Juarez, Latinx coordinator for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. That quality time often occurs outdoors.
“I don’t think anyone can take a drive up American Fork Canyon and not see Latinx families enjoying picnic sites, or enjoying Tibble Fork Reservoir,” Juarez said. “This idea that Latinos don’t feel welcome in the outdoors, period, is a myth.”
What you may see in wilderness spaces, Juarez said, is that there is not as much awareness in Latinx communities and communities of other people of color.
The fact that Latinos are less represented in many environmental and advocacy groups has a lot to do with the way that environmental or wilderness issues have been communicated, Juarez said.
“(Issues have been communicated) using language and terminology in spaces where white people are mostly present, and Latinos are mostly absent,” Juarez said, and a lot of that has to do with there not being a specific focus or taking the platform specifically into Latino communities.
Until Juarez was hired as the Latinx coordinator for SUWA, the group wasn’t necessarily making efforts to do presentations, table, and be present in spaces where Latinx community members are the majority.
“One way of working to combat it is being present in these spaces,” Juarez said.
Creating awareness in Latino communities is important also because in many of the countries where people may have migrated from do not have public lands programs like the U.S., Juarez said.
“This idea that (land) is held in trust for the public is a very unique thing to America,” Juarez said. “As the daughter of an immigrant … people don’t come here looking at Utah and think, ‘Wow, those are ours.’ This is everybody’s. That’s another sort of extra amount of effort that SUWA has to put in now when it comes to organizing Latino communities, recognizing that communities don’t have an idea of what public lands are.”
Latinos who are undocumented residents may also think that they don’t have access to public lands, Juarez said — which isn’t true. The Bureau of Land management allows any member of the public to participate in public commenting processes and other public engagement measures when it comes to speaking out for public lands.
Why is it important to specifically reach out to the Latino community?
Latinos being involved in outdoor and conservation is important, because Latinos often approach conservation from a different perspective. Latinos often focus on an environmental social perspective, as opposed to simply an environmental perspective, Garcia said.
Social environmental perspective looks at how humans and conservation interact, Garcia said. For instance, looking at making sure underserved communities have access to public lands. If a community is right next to public lands but doesn’t have access because of lack of transportation, they don’t have actual entryway, Garcia said.
“It’s a very simple concept of how humans interact that aren’t considered when it comes to protections,” Garcia said. “How do we increase access, but also make sure communities are aware of policies behind that lack of access?”
It’s also important because so little of public lands reflect Latino culture and heritage, Garcia said. Only 4% of public lands reflect that heritage, while Latinos make up a much greater percentage of the population.
“When you try to protect the environment, you can’t disassociate it from people and communities,” Garcia said.
Besides that, Latinos are on the path to becoming one of the largest populations in the U.S. in the coming decades, so it’s important to prepare the next generation to be leaders on issues like climate change, Garcia said.
According to the Hispanic Access Foundation, Latinos make up 16.7% of the nation’s population, and are projected to become nearly one-third of the population by 2050. By 2020, half of all youth in America will be people of color.
“Climate change is the most pressing issue of our time,” Garcia said. “If we don’t have leaders educated, we won’t be prepared as a society to cope with it.”
What is being done nationally?
The National Park Service has made changes at many of its monuments and parks to focus on ensuring that the NPS system reflects the country’s diversity.
A 2008-2009 survey showed that only 9% of the NPS’ visitors identified as Hispanic, according to reporting by National Public Radio, which is far from reflecting the 18% of the U.S. population that identifies as Hispanic, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
“Reaching out to diverse populations with a special focus on the next generation was a core goal of the Centennial effort in 2016 — and still remains,” said Vanessa Lacayo, public affairs specialist with the NPS Intermountain regional office.
The NPS’ efforts to increase diversity include youth programs such as the Latino Heritage Internship Program, which provides internships to 49 undergrad/graduate students attending primarily Hispanic Serving Institutions at over 45 NPS sites each year, and the NPS Academy, which introduces undergrad and graduate students from diverse communities to careers in the NPS.
On a regional level, the NPS does a lot of work with urban populations, which include Latino populations. In Denver, for instance, an Urban Ranger program works in Montbello, a neighborhood in Denver that is about 61% Latino. As of 2018, about 50% of those rangers identified as Latino, 30% as African American and 20% as multiracial.
“While we have taken several steps toward our goal, we always look for ways to improve,” Lacayo said. “Diversifying our staff, providing programs focused on communities of color, and ensuring that the National Park System accurately reflects our country’s diversity are critical.”
What is being done locally?
At Timpanogos Cave National Monument, a big part of outreach involves reaching out to kids, said interpretive park ranger BJ Cluff. The monument has a school-year program where rangers visit schools to teach kids about caves.
“Students are encouraged to learn about the different types of national park sites,” Cluff said. “We hope to help these youth see that the parks are for everyone and all are welcomed here.”
In addition to the educational outreach, the cave has a program called Kids in Nature, which has been running for nine years. The program is focused on funding field trips for Title 1 schools with larger minority populations, Cluff said.
“The program, dependent on funding, pays for the buses and covers fees to visit the caves, and has also provided field trips to other partner sites, allowing students a chance to visit other places outdoors,” Cluff said.
Both these programs, Cluff said, are representative of the work the park service is doing to reach the next generation of youth, particularly in populations who may not have grown up going to national parks.
Involvement in the outdoors isn’t just about hiking or rock climbing or visiting national parks — a huge part of it is being actively involved in conservation efforts or lobbying to protect natural resources.
When it comes to reaching out to Utah Latino communities, Juarez said her job as Latinx coordinator with SUWA isn’t so different from any other community organizer: She takes any opportunity she can to meet people who are involved in the community or expressed interest in protecting the deserts.
For instance, she partners with a soccer organization that cleans up the Jordan River. They now do Latino Conservation week together, continuing to clean the Jordan River and spread awareness.
One difference between her job and a typical community organizer is that folks in Latinx communities may already have an idea of what environmentalism is in Utah, Juarez said.
“They may think it looks like white people taking up space, and not being mindful to provide or leave space for other voices. Then it can be a challenge for me to say, ‘Hey, you know, that’s what I’m trying not to do in my own community organizing,” Juarez said.
SUWA just started a field scholar program that gives stipends to 12 students of color to attend its field service volunteer programs.
“I think programs like this are really essential to create, helping community members take that first step,” Juarez said.
What more could be done?
Locally, there’s a lot that could be done to make sure Latino voices are being heard, Wheatley said.
The work groups like HECHO are doing is important, he said, and he thinks the most important thing that can be done in Utah is to reach out to schools, which he says HECHO has plans to do.
“There are a lot of schools in the Salt Lake school districts — some of them are minority-majority,” Wheatley said. “So there’s a lot of students we can reach out to.”
It’s critical to reach kids at a young age, Wheatley said, because being exposed to it then might be what sparks a lifelong passion.
“Sometimes until you experience it, it doesn’t hit home,” Wheatley said. “That’s why it’s important to have more access for more and more Latino children to experience that.”
Engaging communities and elevating Latino voices in conservation and outdoors is important, Garcia said. Part of doing that is making sure people have a connection to places and issues.
“When people have connection to places and issues like the watershed, or specific public lands, they fall in love with those places and want to work and fight to protect them,” Garcia said.
That’s part of the reason outreach efforts like Latino Conservation Week are so important.
“I think it’s super important to show that when you fall in love with a place, and love a place so much you will work extremely hard to protect these places, the places that actually give us life,” Garcia said. “Everything is interconnected, and Latinos are unique in seeing connection between social lives and the natural world.”