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Sex and COVID-19: BCCDC releases findings of sexual health services survey

In the first phase of the pandemic, 65 per cent of British Columbian respondents worried about getting COVID-19 during sexual encounters
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The BC Centre for Disease Control (BCCDC) says that many people who needed access to sexual health services during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic faced challenges. Photo: Face masks and lingerie / Getty Images

"Let's talk about sex." 

The BC Centre for Disease Control (BCCDC) says that many people who needed access to sexual health services during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic faced challenges.

In a survey of nearly 1,200 clients of the Sexually Transmitted Infections (STI) Clinic and GetCheckedOnline between July 21 and Aug. 4, 2020, the BCCDC found that just over half of the respondents did not seek the care they needed.

The survey was developed and conducted when BCCDC’s STI clinic saw declines in STI testing rates and diagnoses in the initial months of the pandemic.

"This may have led to people not getting timely STI testing or treatment, or other services such as accessing birth control medications," explains a news release.

The most common reasons people gave for avoiding or delaying seeking sexual health services were:

  • Public messages early in the pandemic to avoid seeking any healthcare that was not essential
  • Concern about getting COVID-19 while travelling to or at a clinic or lab
  • Closure of sexual health services due to the pandemic.

“We found that many individuals needing sexual health services did not have their needs met during the pandemic for a variety of reasons, including, but not limited to, concerns about COVID-19 transmission," said Troy Grennan, physician lead, HIV/STI Program with the BCCDC.

Medical Director Mark Gilbert adds that the "silver lining" of the survey results is that people who used B.C.'s online STI testing service, GetCheckedOnline, were less likely to report unmet sexual health needs. He adds that this suggests virtual health services play an "important role in mitigating service access issues."

New service options to fit client needs

In addition to GetCheckedOnline, the BCCDC also provides virtual visits for HIV pre-exposure prophylaxis, telephone triage, and online chat services.

The survey also uncovered other potential options that appear popular to clients surveyed, such as test kits or antibiotics at home in plain packaging, self-collection kits for testing, and express testing. Express testing is where clients can get tested at a clinic for sexually transmissible and blood-borne infections (STBBI) without seeing a nurse or physician if they do not have symptoms and do not have a concerning event.

“Overall, the survey shows that our clients are interested in services that reduce in-person visits,“ said Grennan. “BCCDC is up to the challenge of increasing access to our sexual health services by continuing developing and implementing new service options that fit our clients’ needs.” 

The survey also found that the COVID-19 pandemic had other impacts including worsening of mental health, stress due to financial pressure, and increases in substance use, notably alcohol. "These findings support the role for providers of sexual health services in supporting client needs in these areas."

Many participants reported feeling judged by others for having sex during the pandemic, and many of them used COVID-19 risk reduction strategies, highlighting the importance of using sex-positive, harm reduction approaches to sexual health promotion. 

  • 64 per cent of participants looked for or received information about being exposed to COVID-19 infection during sexual encounters
  • 35 per cent of participants felt they would feel judged by others for having sex during the pandemic
  • Overall, 26 per cent of participants agreed that they were, or would soon be, having sex with more people than earlier in the pandemic.
  • In the first phase of the BC pandemic (March to mid-May 2020), 65 per cent of participants reported worry about getting COVID-19 during sexual encounters. By the time of the survey, 26 per cent reported feeling less worried.