It’s been a long, long year of COVID-19-imposed restrictions, including sheltering in place and continued social distancing — and for many people, no in-person socializing has meant no dating and no sex. With vaccinations rolling out just in time for warmer weather, though, experts predict a spike in summer sexual activity — and with it, an increase in sexually transmitted infections (STIs), formerly referred to as STDs.
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“People are social creatures, and they want to socialize and party, especially with summer coming,” says Ob/Gyn Oluwatosin Goje, MD. But staying safe is as vital as ever.
Upon the arrival of “shot girl summer,” as the internet has dubbed it, Dr. Goje weighs in on post-quarantine safe sex and how to responsibly reenter the dating pool amid an ongoing global pandemic.
Young people are ready for freedom
After a year of virtual classes, work-from-home jobs, and Zoom happy hours, you’re likely more eager than ever to get back out into the world in person.
“People have been hibernating for a long time, and young people, especially, want to explore and be free and happy,” Dr. Goje says. “As they do, it’s important to keep safe sex in mind.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that people ages 15-24 are at a higher risk for STDs, making up 61% of chlamydia cases and 42% of gonorrhea cases. Safe sex practices include:
- Being tested for STIs.
- Practicing safe sex, including using birth control and condoms.
- Talking to your sexual partner(s) about their STI status and safe sex practices.
But safe sex is for everyone — not just young people — because everyone is susceptible to STIs.
STDs are still rampant
In April, the CDC reported an increase in STD rates for the sixth year a row. Those numbers showed approximately 2.6 million cases of chlamydia, gonorrhea and syphilis in 2019, up from 2.5 million cases in 2018.
And although STD data is not yet available for 2020, the racial and ethnic gaps behind the 2019 numbers are staggering.
“Healthcare disparities continue to have a racial and ethnic slant,” Dr. Goje says. “Young people, the LGBTQ+ community, and the Black population, among others, all have higher rates of STDs.”
The CDC numbers show that marginalized communities have higher rates of STIs than do non-Hispanic white people:
- Rates among Hispanic and Latino people are 1-2 times higher.
- Rates among American Indians, Alaska Natives, Native Hawaiians, and other Pacific Islanders are 3-5 times higher.
- Rates among Black people are 5-8 times higher.
“A young Black person already has two risk factors, then: age and racial group,” Dr. Goje says. “As STD numbers have increased, some groups are harder hit, and that’s where the disparities are. Whatever we do to address STDs, we have to try to bring about some equity in order to reduce the overall burden.”
The pandemic impacted STD testing and treatment
Without CDC data yet available for 2020, it’s hard to say what the numbers will show — but Dr. Goje explains a few factors that might impact STD data for the pandemic year:
- At the height of the pandemic, field and health officers who track the spread of STDs were re-tasked to do contact tracing for COVID-19, with STI tracking largely put on hold.
- In early 2020, the CDC reported a shortage of azithromycin, which is used to treat chlamydia and gonorrhea, as well as some respiratory infections.
- Pandemic-induced supply chain shortages led to a lack of STD testing kits throughout the pandemic, making it historically difficult for medical providers to diagnose STIs.
Resolve any pre-pandemic health issues
While many people understandably put doctors’ appointments on pause during the peak of the pandemic, Dr. Goje says it’s now time to revisit those existing health issues. Before you reenter the world post-vaccination — whether to date or not — make time to speak with a medical professional about any concerns you put off during lockdown.
“If you have any unresolved symptoms or got a diagnosis before the pandemic that you put on the back burner because of the fear of going to the doctor or getting COVID-19, it’s time to address that now — before you get out of the quarantine mentality,” she says.
At this stage in the pandemic, most hospitals, clinics, and doctors’ offices are safe and fully equipped to handle non-COVID-19 patients. But if you’re not yet totally comfortable, consider a telehealth appointment, to start.
“This is the time to access healthcare and resolve health issues, regardless of whether you’re going to have sexual activities or not,” Dr. Goje advises.
Open the lines of communication
It’s always a little awkward to have conversations about safe sex with someone you’re about to sleep with — but doing so is a crucial element of, well, having safe sex.
“The main thing is to be safe and to be as open as possible with your partner about what transpired during the pandemic,” Dr. Goje says.
Do they or could they have an STI? Were they sexually active during the pandemic? Have they been tested? When? There’s no way to know unless you ask.
Dr. Goje recommends starting with a conversation about mental health during the pandemic to help lead into a conversation about sexual health.
“I ask all my patients who I haven’t seen during the pandemic, ‘How has the past year been? What was new and exciting?” she says. “Starting with mental health makes you an ally. You can ask, ‘What were your new hobbies? What ways did you learn to cope?’ — and then segue into sexual health: ‘Did you meet new people?’”
Should you get an STD test?
While it’s not necessary for everyone to get an STI test prior to reentering the dating pool, people who were having unsafe sex before the pandemic — or during it — should do so now.
“Whatever STIs existed before COVID-19 are still there,” Dr. Goje says. “If you have an untreated STI, it doesn’t just self-resolve.”
The CDC recommends that people ages 25 and under should get yearly STD tests, and anybody over that age who’s at risk or thinks they’ve been exposed should do the same.
Long story short: If you have any concerns, go get tested.