Finally, continue safe sex practices that also prevent unintended pregnancy and infections that are not COVID-19, including chlamydia, gonorrhea, HIV, and syphilis. Even prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, STIs were at a record high in the United States. Infections such as chlamydia, gonorrhea had been increasing 3-5% and syphilis had risen 15%.
“These areas of public health have been underfunded for decades,” notes Dr. Hilary Reno, an Associate Professor of Medicine at Washington University and also the Medical Director of the St. Louis County Sexual Health Clinic and CDC Sexually Transmitted Disease Prevention consultant. The COVID-19 pandemic has taxed this further. There were shortages of chlamydia and gonorrhea tests as manufacturers repurposed swabs for COVID-19 tests. Contact tracers who would normally follow up partners of infected individuals are now pulled into COVID-19 efforts.
Although many of STIs are curable (chlamydia, gonorrhea, and syphilis) or effectively managed (HIV), untreated they can have lasting consequences. “People are still getting STI’s but they aren’t getting tested, so now we have these undetected infections,” notes Dr. Reno, “when are they going to present, how are they going to present?”
It is important to continue to communicate about sexual consent, use barrier protection, and get tested regularly for both COVID-19 (if you are not yet vaccinated) as well as STIs. As more data about transmission emerges and more people get vaccinated, follow updates on recommended guidelines.
Sex, sexuality, and companionship is a critical part of human health and well-being. We already have decades of experience that an abstinence-only approach, stigma, and shame only exacerbate transmission and make risky behavior secretive. Providing people with reliable information and tools for prevention of both COVID and STIs allows them to sustainably and realistically navigate their lives while also keeping safe.
Dharushana Muthulingam, MD, MS is an infectious disease physician, researcher and instructor at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis.