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It's that time of the year to observe National Domestic Violence Awareness Month, which is recognized each October.

Domestic violence has long been viewed as a major issue to be addressed. On average, nearly 20 people per minute are physically abused by an intimate partner in the U.S., equating to more than 10 million women and men annually, according to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. Approximately 1 in 4 women and 1 in 9 men experience severe intimate partner physical violence, intimate partner contact sexual violence and/or intimate partner stalking.

Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic has added a frightening new dimension for victims.

Advocates working with victims were afraid that the pandemic would cause domestic violence rates to skyrocket as shutdowns and stay-at-home orders forced victims to be home with their abusers for longer periods of time. They worried that the faltering economy would further entangle victims with their abusers' finances and employment status.

But calls to domestic violence hotlines dropped significantly. And experts reached an alarming new theory — that domestic violence rates were as high as they'd ever been, but victims no longer had the same access to services and resources as they did in pre-pandemic times, according to research published last month in the New England Journal of Medicine. For example, some police departments, citing COVID-19 safety protocols, restricted the ways in which reports could be filed, closing their offices to the public and moving those services online, while restrictions on travel to and from certain parts of the country reduced many victims' access to safe havens.

Those barriers have had serious consequences. Researchers at a Massachusetts academic medical center found a higher incidence and severity of physical intimate partner violence among patients during the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic compared with the prior three years, they said in a study published in August in the journal Radiology.

That indicates that victims are reporting to health care facilities in the late stages of the abuse cycle during the pandemic, possibly because of fears of contracting the disease or the disruption of care offered at outpatient sites, Bharti Khurana, principal investigator and director of the Trauma Imaging Research and Innovation Center at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston, told the Radiological Society of North America.

“There is underreporting by the victims, accentuated due to fear of seeking care due to COVID-19," she said. "At the same time, (intimate partner violence)-related injuries may be getting overlooked or misinterpreted as our front-line physicians are overwhelmed by a vast number of COVID-19 patients in the emergency department.”

There seems to be no end in sight yet to the pandemic; National Domestic Violence Awareness Month technically will end in 21 days. But domestic violence awareness and education should have no end until the problem is eradicated.

Let's commit to supporting our local women's shelters with the funding and resources they need to be successful, to prioritizing abuse victims in COVID-19 relief programs, to easing access to safe spaces for victims, to educating people on pandemic stressors and healthy ways to deal with them. Domestic violence has no place in our community.

If you need immediate assistance, call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 800-799-7233. Lafayette House in Joplin can be reached at 417-782-1772 or 800-416-1772. Safehouse Crisis Center in Pittsburg, Kansas, can be reached at 800-794-9148.