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Forensic nurses and advocates want Utahns to know they are still available to help people who have been sexually assaulted during the coronavirus pandemic.

Evidence is still being collected with rape kits at hospitals across the state, and medical care and trauma support are being provided 24/7 to anyone who needs it, said Susan Chasson, a sexual assault nurse examiner with the Utah Coalition Against Sexual Assault (UCASA).

“We’re still working, and we’re always putting patients’ interests first,” she said.

These services will continue to be performed in person as long as it’s safe to do so, Chasson said Monday. If hospitals get busier with COVID-19 patients, then forensic nurses are prepared to move to doctor’s offices and clinics. But there isn’t a need right now to conduct forensic exams remotely, she said.

Earlier this month, a woman in Monterey County, Calif., used a do-it-yourself rape kit while videoconferencing with a forensic nurse and advocate from the local rape crisis center, according to a report from the magazine Mother Jones. A deputy district attorney for the county told Mother Jones this temporary protocol was put in place as a safety measure during the coronavirus pandemic.

Preserve Group, the company that donated the kit used in California, and MeToo Kits Company were widely criticized last year by people in Utah and across the country. Advocates argued these DIY kits didn’t connect survivors with health care they may need, such as for injuries or screenings for infections, or with nearby support services that can help with trauma, like a forensic nurse would.

Legal experts also warned that evidence collected with these kits was unlikely to be able to be used in court. Plus, forensic sexual assault exams are free in Utah, while PRESERVEkits were being sold for $29.95 through Amazon.

The founders of PRESERVEkits and MeToo Kits claimed they were providing an option for those who didn’t want to go to law enforcement or a hospital after an assault. But after receiving complaints and cease and desist letters, the companies stopped sales and advertising last year. The Mother Jones article questioned, though, whether these DIY providers would “see the coronavirus as their chance for a comeback.”

“We just worry with this emergence again of these DIY kits that some survivors might (wonder if they can no) longer get the care that they did before," said Julie Valentine, a member of Wasatch Forensic Nurses and an associate professor at Brigham Young University College of Nursing. But they can, she said.

UCASA posted a message on Facebook last week assuring survivors of sexual assault “that all of the Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner programs in Utah are still seeing patients and they are taking the necessary steps to protect patients from being exposed to the virus.”

Anyone nervous about going to a hospital for an exam is urged to call the Utah Sexual Violence Crisis Line at 1-888-421-1100 to connect with an advocate who can help.

Hospitals are taking safety precautions, checking people’s temperatures at the door and giving masks to anyone showing symptoms, Chasson said.

Forensic nurses already wore masks to protect evidence while performing sexual assault exams, and they will continue to follow hospitals’ rules during COVID-19, she said. Any nurses or advocates who are not feeling well are asked not to go to exams, said Julie Stephenson, UCASA executive director.

Most crisis advocacy centers are still responding in person in Utah to be with survivors during exams, Stephenson said. Rape Recovery Center in Salt Lake City is not physically sending its crisis response team to hospitals right now, but they are still providing resources virtually. People can call the center’s crisis line at 801-467-7273 and dial 3 to receive support for their forensic exam.

Although there’s been an increase in domestic violence calls made to 911 dispatchers since Utah urged people to self-isolate, Chasson and Valentine said they haven’t seen a change in sexual assault reports.

Stephenson pointed out, though, that sexual assault is generally underreported, which is why it’s important people know resources are still available.

UCASA will continue to monitor the spread of COVID-19 in Utah and is keeping in touch with forensic nurse programs throughout the state to make sure they’re prepared and have the protective gear they need, Chasson said.

“We just want to make sure that our community knows we’re still providing care,” Valentine said, “and nurses are still ready to care for and serve survivors.”