illustration of a person who has a coral fingernails holding a clear test tube in their left hand a white swab in their right hand; the instructions for their at-home STI testing kit are visible on the table below their handsShare on Pinterest
Illustration by Maya Chastain

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The COVID-19 pandemic may be the public health crisis on the tips of everyone’s tongues and thumbs.

But there’s a congruent health crisis that the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention declared a growing epidemic: the rise of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) and infections (STIs).

The COVID-19 pandemic has greatly affected access to in-person STI testing, treatment, and preventative care — helping to propel the STD 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.

In short: It greatly reduced it.

Hospitals in COVID-19 hotspots were encouraged to optimize their resources, and so sexual health services were reduced.

Take New York, for example. On March 18, 2020, the NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene closed seven of eight sexual health clinics, keeping one open for limited and emergency services only.

As well, many urban community centers, which are major providers of healthcare and sexual health services (especially for the LGBTQ+ community), announced they would limit their in-person visits.

Even local Planned Parenthood centers reduced hours or suspended walk-in appointments.

In total, over 80 percent of STD programs across the United States paused services and community visits throughout this time, according to a May 2020 survey by the National Coalition of STD Directors.

“At some points during the pandemic, it was even hard to get swabs for STI tests, because there was a supply crunch [due to] COVID-19 tests,” adds Dr. Emily Rymland, DNP, FNP-C, the director of clinical operations at Nurx, a digital healthcare provider.

Naturally, a drop in overall testing is going to result in a drop in positive tests.

In October 2020, the New York Times reported that rates of syphilis, gonorrhea, and chlamydia had taken an “abrupt downturn” in 2020.

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.

“Public health experts are very concerned that there are a lot of people with undiagnosed STIs right now — so now’s a great time to get tested,” Rymland says.

Because the only way to know your STI status is to get STI tested.

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:

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,” Rymland says.

But some people need to be tested far more often, she says. This includes people who:

  • frequently have new partners
  • aren’t sure of a partner’s status
  • suspect they were exposed to an STI
  • experience unusual symptoms

It’s true that, all in all, people are having less sex during the pandemic than before it 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.

As Eric Paulukonis, the director of prevention services at the Mazzoni Center (Philadelphia’s largest LGBT healthcare provider), told The Philadelphia Inquirer, “We know from hookup apps and conversations with patients that people are still sexually active with partners they are not quarantined with.”

It simply means people are having sex less frequently.

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:

With vaccination rollout underway and new COVID-19 cases on the decline, many STI testing sites are slowly returning to their regular schedule and capacity.

These STI testing sites include:

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 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.

Many 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 doctor 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. Easy!

“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, a 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, and those who were unfaithful to the partner they share an insurance plan with.

Popular at-home STI testing kits are available for purchase from the following brands:

“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.

“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 a 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.

Pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) is an oral medication that can be taken daily for HIV-negative people who are at risk for contracting HIV. PrEp helps reduce that risk of transmission.

Unfortunately, many people who could benefit from PrEP aren’t currently taking it.

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 ‘men who have sex with men,’” Mondy says. “[This] erases nonbinary, trans, queer, fluid, and other people that could stand to benefit from PrEP.”

This, again, is any HIV-negative person at risk of contracting the virus.

“On the other hand, research has shown that one in eight PrEP-eligible people live in ‘PrEP deserts,’ or at least a 30-minute drive from a clinic where they can access PrEP,” Mondy adds.

To help address this, digital providers, like Nurx and PlushCare, offer PrEP and other reproductive care to Americans of all genders through telehealth.

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 new is important.

Unfortunately, most COVID-19 testing centers don’t also test for STIs, and most STI testing centers don’t also test for COV-19.

Clinics that do have the capacity to test for COVID-19 and STIs usually 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.)

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.

Due to a combination of closed STI testing sites, limited in-person appointments, and fears of contracting COVID-19, many pleasure seekers’ usual sex practices fluctuated during the pandemic.

“With COVID-19 vaccines being distributed and at-home and in-person STI testing sites becoming an option, now is a perfect time to get tested,” Rymland says.

“Start your post-quarantine social life knowing your status.”

Gabrielle Kassel is a New York-based sex and wellness writer and CrossFit Level 1 Trainer. She’s become a morning person, tested over 200 vibrators, and eaten, drunk, and brushed with charcoal — all in the name of journalism. In her free time, she can be found reading self-help books and romance novels, bench-pressing, or pole dancing. Follow her on Instagram.