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Fewer British Columbians sought sexual health services early in pandemic: survey

During the pandemic, there was an increasing focus on internet-based testing services and virtual visits for sexual health services.
Image Credit: SUBMITTED/B.C. Centre for Disease Control
March 05, 2021 - 6:00 AM

A B.C. Centre for Disease Control survey is reporting British Columbians had fewer sexual partners in the first phase of the pandemic, but they also didn't seek out the care they needed for their sexual health.

The centre surveyed nearly 1,200 clients of the Sexually Transmitted Infections Clinic and GetCheckedOnline, B.C.’s online testing service for sexually transmitted infections, between July 21 and Aug. 4, 2020 to find out more about people’s sexual health and needs during the early days of the pandemic, prior to the second wave, according to a BCCDC press release.

The survey was developed when the centre saw a decline in STI testing and diagnoses in the initial months of the pandemic. The survey results suggested during this time people had fewer partners and less need for testing.

Overall, 71% of participants reported a decrease (31%) or no change (40%) in their number of sex partners during the pandemic, according to the survey. But 26% 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 B.C. pandemic (March to mid-May, 2020), 65% of participants reported worry about getting COVID-19 during sexual encounters. By the time of the survey, 26% reported feeling less worried.

READ MORE: The safest sex to have during COVID-19 is with yourself, BCCDC says

The survey also showed that just over half of people did not seek the care they needed. This may have led to people not getting timely STI testing or treatment, or other services such as accessing birth control medications, BCCDC said.

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 and the closure of sexual health services due to the pandemic, the survey said.

“We felt it was important to look at how this pandemic impacted British Columbians and their lives so that our clinics can better meet their needs,” said Troy Grennan, physician lead with the HIV/STI program, in the press release. “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.”

The silver lining was users of GetCheckedOnline were less likely to report unmet sexual health needs during the pandemic.

In addition to the online service, the centre for disease control also provides virtual visits for HIV pre-exposure prophylaxis, telephone triage and online chat services. During the pandemic, there was an increasing focus on these services.

The survey 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, which doesn't require a doctor or nurse. 

“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.”

These findings affirm the direction of the centre's STI clinic work to develop alternative methods for sexual health care, many of which can extend the reach of the clinic beyond the Vancouver area, as well as providing support for new approaches such as express testing.

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.

To contact a reporter for this story, email Carli Berry or call 250-864-7494 or email the editor. You can also submit photos, videos or news tips to the newsroom and be entered to win a monthly prize draw.

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