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Since early 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic has been the public health crisis on the tips of everyone’s tongues and thumbs.
But there’s a congruent health crisis that the
The COVID-19 pandemic greatly affected access to in-person STI testing, treatment, and preventive care — helping to propel the STI epidemic further. Or so experts think.
Read on to learn more about the intersection of the two (types of) viruses. Plus, where to get STI tested right now.
Despite common belief, most STIs don’t make themselves known with painful, awkward, or bumpy symptoms — the majority are completely asymptomatic.
Symptomatic or not, STIs that are left untreated can lead to a range of complications, including:
- pelvic inflammatory disease
- erectile dysfunction
- liver disease
- cervical cancer
- increased risk of miscarriage
And the only way for an STI to be properly treated is for it to be diagnosed.
“The general recommendation is that everybody who’s sexually active gets tested once a year unless they’ve been in a monogamous relationship for a long time and are certain of their partner’s status,” says Dr. Emily Rymland, DNP, FNP-C, director of clinical operations at Nurx, a digital healthcare platform.
But some people need to be tested far more often, she says.
This includes people who:
- frequently have new or different partners
- aren’t sure of a partner’s STI status
- suspect they were exposed to an STI
- experience unusual symptoms
FYI: You may not be able to get tested for STIs and COVID-19 at the same time
COVID-19 isn’t an STI. But, due to the closeness of bodies and likely exchange of infectious respiratory particles, COVID-19 can be transmitted during sex.
That’s why knowing your COVID-19 and STI status before hooking up with someone is important.
Unfortunately, most COVID-19 testing centers don’t also test for STIs, and most STI testing centers don’t also test for COVID-19.
Clinics that do have the capacity to test for both COVID-19 and STIs may require that each test be performed in separate appointments for insurance purposes.
(Because symptoms for the two are different, most insurance companies don’t consider them to be connected health concerns. And in some cases, insurers won’t cover COVID-19 testing unless COVID-19 symptoms are present.)
So, if you want to get tested for COVID-19 and STIs in the same go, call up your local clinic and check their protocols around getting both tests at the same time.
You may need to book two back-to-back appointments or visit two separate clinics to learn your overall status.
While it’s true that some STI testing centers are still at limited capacity, others have slowly returned to their regular schedule and capacity.
These STI testing sites include:
local health departments
- Planned Parenthood locations
- non-profit health organizations
- college and university health centers
- LGBTQIA+ centers
- urgent care clinics
Click the above links or hit up Google to find your local testing site. You can also check out our round-up of STI testing locations available in each state, in Washington, D.C., and online.
You can also get tested with at-home STD test kits.
Most clinics have protocols in place in order to protect both the people getting tested and the ones giving the tests.
For example, most clinics will have you call them when you arrive, ask you to wait outside, and then ring you when it’s your turn.
Or, at the very least, require that you wear a mask indoors. (Even if your city or state does not have indoor mask mandates).
Some clinics will also take your temperature at the door and ask you about any recent COVID-19 exposures or symptoms before allowing you inside the building.
Go to the testing center’s website, or give them a call, to learn more about their clinic-specific protocols.
Mitigating the risk of contracting COVID-19 while getting STI tested is similar to how you would mitigate the risk of doing anything during the pandemic:
- Wear a mask (or two).
- Stay 6 feet away from your clinician or clinic staff when you can.
- Wash your hands before and after the appointment.
- Avoid touching surfaces whenever possible.
“At-home STI tests make STI testing easy, convenient, and private,” Rymland says. “And it allows you to do so without making an appointment, going to a lab, or talking about it face-to-face with a medical provider.”
Here’s how they work:
- You order an at-home STI testing kit to your home, which includes everything you need to collect your sample(s).
- You open the box and follow instructions to a T to collect your samples.
- Finally, you mail your samples off to a lab and wait to receive your results via email or patient portal in a few days.
“A perk of at-home STI tests is that they [can] cost less than in-person visits for those who aren’t insured,” says Rashmi Kudesia, MD, medical advisor for SimpleHealth, an online prescriber of birth control for folks of all genders.
They’re also a way for those who are insured to side-step their insurance if they want to for privacy’s sake, she says. For instance, those who are covered under parental insurance or those who were unfaithful to the partner they share an insurance plan with.
“Assuming you follow the directions for collecting specimens (urine, blood, vaginal fluid, etc.), at-home STI tests are fairly reliable,” Kudesia says.
After all, most at-home STI services send the samples you collected to the same labs doctor-collected samples are sent to, says public health expert Charlene Brown, MD, MPH.
The main downside of at-home STI tests is timeliness. “You have to wait for the kit to arrive, send it back in, and then wait for your results,” Kudesia explains.
So, if you’re having active symptoms, or if you know you’re at risk due to recent exposure, at-home tests may not be the fastest route to proper treatment, she says.
Your move: Weigh your coronavirus contraction risk with your need for STI treatment. To accurately weigh your decisions, find out what your testing site’s COVID-19 protocols are.
Popular at-home STI testing kits are available for purchase from the following brands:
Pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) is an oral medication that can be taken daily for HIV-negative people who are at risk of contracting HIV. PrEp helps reduce that risk of transmission.
Unfortunately, many people who could benefit from PrEP aren’t currently taking it. (For the record: This was true even before the pandemic!).
Lincoln Mondy, the associate director of strategic projects at Advocates for Youth, says it’s due in part to the marketing of the medication as well as its limited ability.
“On one hand, PrEP has become overly gendered, often exclusively associated with ‘
This, again, is any HIV-negative person at risk of contracting the virus.
“On the other hand,
To help address this, digital providers, like Nurx and PlushCare, offer PrEP and other reproductive care to Americans of all genders through telehealth.
Are people actually having less sex during the COVID-19 pandemic?
Ehh, yes and no!
It’s true that people were having less sex when in lockdown than before the pandemic started. June 2020 research, for example, reported a dramatic decrease in partnered sexual experiences in 2020 compared to the previous year.
However, that doesn’t mean everyone is having zero sex. Even during periods of social distancing, there were people still getting it on.
As Eric Paulukonis, director of prevention services at the Mazzoni Center, told The Philadelphia Inquirer, “We know from hookup apps and conversations with patients that people are still sexually active with partners they aren’t quarantined with.”
It simply means people are having sex less frequently, he says.
But neither the amount someone has sex nor the number of sexual partners someone has are good indicators of STI transmission risk.
Here are some better indications of someone’s sexual health:
As for after social distancing orders were put into place? Rymland says people are still having sex.
“From what we saw at Nurx, there hasn’t been any decline in sexual activity since the onslaught of the COVID-19 pandemic,” she says.
Currently, there’s no data on how vaccination availability impacted people’s sexual activity. But common sense says that after people get jabbed, they also began to have partner sex.
Does developing COVID-19 make you more likely to contract an STI?
To be very clear: Having COVID-19 does *not* increase your risk of contracting an STI if exposed. And having an STI doesn’t make you more likely to contract COVID-19. (Or, at least, there’s no research suggesting this kind of link).
That is NOT the intersection of the two viruses that we’re suggesting.
What is the intersection we’re suggesting? Well, the COVID-19 pandemic greatly impacted people’s access to STI testing, safer sex barriers, preventive medication, and treatment. But it didn’t change how much sex people were having that much.
The result of this one-two punch, according to healthcare officials, is that more people have STIs than prior to the pandemic. Even if they don’t know their current (positive) status. More on all of this below!
Has COVID-19 affected STI test availability?
“The pandemic had a serious impact on STI testing,” says Rymland. In short: It greatly reduced it.
“Many brick-and-mortar clinics closed for most of the epidemic,” she says. “School health clinics closed as well.”
Many urban community centers, which are major providers of healthcare and sexual health services (especially for LGBTQIA+ communities), also announced they would limit their in-person visits. Even local Planned Parenthood centers reduced hours or suspended walk-in appointments.
During the height of the pandemic, hospitals in COVID-19 hotspots were encouraged to optimize their resources, and so sexual health services were reduced.
In total, over 80 percent of STD programs across the U.S. paused services and community visits throughout this time, according to a May 2020 survey by the National Coalition of STD Directors.
Two years after their initial closing, many testing centers are still not back and running “as usual.” Take New York, for example. To this day, the NYC Health Clinics are either operating at reduced capacity or closed until further notice.
Does COVID-19 affect STI rates?
Naturally, a drop in overall testing is going to result in a drop in positive tests.
Indeed, one 2021
But this drop, according to experts, isn’t a reflection of a decrease in the number of people living with STIs.
Rather, it’s a reflection of the decrease in people who have gotten STI tested and the increase in undetected infections.
Asymptomatic cases were especially likely to go undiagnosed (and untreated), per a September 2021 study by the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.
“Public health experts are very concerned that there are a lot of people with undiagnosed STIs right now,” says Rymland.
Due to a combination of closed STI testing sites, limited in-person appointments, and concerns about contracting COVID-19, many pleasure seekers’ usual safer sex practices have fluctuated during the pandemic.
Now that COVID-19 vaccines are available and at-home and in-person STI testing sites are an option, now is a perfect time to get tested, Rymland says.
Enjoy your newfound social (and sex!) life knowing your status.
Gabrielle Kassel (she/her) is a queer sex educator and wellness journalist who is committed to helping people feel the best they can in their bodies. In addition to Healthline, her work has appeared in publications such as Shape, Cosmopolitan, Well+Good, Health, Self, Women’s Health, Greatist, and more! In her free time, Gabrielle can be found coaching CrossFit, reviewing pleasure products, hiking with her border collie, or recording episodes of the podcast she co-hosts called Bad In Bed. Follow her on Instagram @Gabriellekassel.