I won’t dwell on the fact that COVID-19 has greatly changed the culture of how we all interact with each other and with new public safety measures. A common trend or theme that I’ve noticed personally is an increase in awareness in regards to your COVID-19 status before hanging out with anyone, whether it be extended family or someone like a partner. Before any outside person from my nuclear family comes to visit any one of my roommates or I, they have to test negative for COVID-19, while also quarantining, so we are all confident the person is not a risk to us.
After thinking about how frequently some of my nuclear family’s friends have been tested to ensure they are not knowingly spreading the virus after they’ve interacted with other people, I couldn’t help but think about the culture of testing for sexually transmitted infections (STI). Similar to COVID-19 testing, it should be routine and normalized for a partner to be tested for STIs prior to engaging in sexual activity with a new person in order to keep everyone safe and decrease the risk of transmission.
Therefore, I believe that the newly created culture of COVID-19 testing will translate into a newly transformed culture of more frequent STI testing, but only if there is a nearly equal amount of emphasis placed on it.
When we take a look at the patterns of STI testing amongst young people, we see a gap in the number of people being tested and the number of people with STIs. A study published in the Journal of Adolescent Health showed that people between the ages of 15 and 25 account for half of all new sexually transmitted infections, but the majority of those young people had not been tested because they thought they were not at risk.
Interestingly, the idea of perceived risk being a deterrent and instilling some immune, god complex in the minds of young people is almost the exact same in terms of COVID-19 testing. Just like STIs, many young people feel that they will be asymptomatic to COVID-19 and have a more relaxed viewpoint on the deadly disease. Yet, when we look at the numbers, so many young people are being tested for COVID-19. Why?
Granted, the largest driving force is the social pressures that accompany a global pandemic. However, there are also more interpersonal and logistical reasons why I think the COVID-19 testing culture is miles ahead of STI testing.
First, although there are some young people that do not care about COVID-19 test results before socializing, a lot of others do care. This hard line drawn by select members of our community has helped force lots of people to be tested that might not have. If STI testing were to be normalized in the same way, it would push people to be firm in their decision to require their partner to be STI tested before being physically intimate with them.
Second, there needs to be an increase in access to STI testing, as there has been for COVID-19. Again, I recognize there is a global pandemic, which is the reason for the increased push; however, health centers such as NC State’s Student Health Services can do more to encourage increases in STI testing. Student Health Services provides free STI testing by appointment, but in the past, they have not greatly advertised their free STI testing days to the broader community. Moreover, it is important for STI testing to be disconnected from insurance so that students don’t have to worry about their parents or families seeing that they were getting tested.
COVID-19 testing will hopefully normalize STI testing and conversations about sexual health in the same way it has normalized conversations about general public health. If people are firm in their decision to require partners to be tested, in combination with an increase in easy, convenient STI testing, we will finally be able to see a culture change in the way young people discuss and advocate for their sexual health.