VANCOUVER -- During a COVID-19 news conference Monday, a B.C. health official spoke about a different outbreak underway in the province: syphilis.

Dr. Bonnie Henry said there have been increases in sexually transmitted infections in the province recently, including in chlamydia and gonorrhea.

"And we are still in the midst of an outbreak of syphilis in the province," she said.

Figures from the B.C. Centre for Disease Control released in the fall showed B.C.'s infection rate was the highest it had been in three decades.

Henry said in October that the increase in cases of the bacterial infection were particularly noted in gay and bisexual men, but cases in women had also gone up.

Syphilis can be cured with antibiotics, but can cause serious complications if left untreated.

Infections can have no symptoms, but can also present as a hard, painless sore, a rash, hair loss, fatigue and swelling of the glands.

It can be contracted through oral, anal and vaginal sex, or through skin-to-skin contact with a syphilis lesion or rash.

Speaking Monday, Henry emphasized the importance of safe sex and being tested.

Henry was asked about the closures of some sexual health clinics during the pandemic.

She said availability of non-urgent testing for sexually transmitted infections is expected to increase as things open up in the province.

She said many community health-care services are increasing, and reminded anyone who believes they have an STI that there's another option that doesn't involve going to a clinic.

The BCCDC runs a website called Users create an account, then go through an assessment questionnaire and print out a lab form.

That form can then be taken by the patient to a designated lab, where they will be asked to give a blood or urine sample, and may get a swab kit to bring home.

The site will then send an email to the patient letting them know their results are ready. A nurse will reach out using the provided contact information if the results are positive or inconclusive.

The service is available only in the following cities: Vancouver, Victoria, Duncan, Kamloops, Kimberley and Nelson.

Earlier this month, Henry was asked by CTV News for her advice on dating and sex during the pandemic, and as conditions ease.

She advised those thinking of dating again to "take your time."

The province has not provided much guidance on sexual activity, but the BCCDC says anyone feeling ill should skip it. Those feeling OK can go ahead, within reason.

"You are your safest sex partner, and your next safest sex partner(s) is/are the person(s) you live with," the centre says in a post online.

COVID-19 has been detected in semen, the centre says, as well as in saliva, respiratory fluids, urine and feces.

Further research is required to determine whether it can be transmitted sexually, the BCCDC says, but, given that it can spread to someone within two metres, it would be possible to get it in some way.

With files from CTV News Vancouver's Penny Daflos and The Canadian Press