Welcome to my new blog, well, our new blog. I have started this blog to ensure that you know the health trends that I look at to help shape our services delivered at Spectrum Health Care.
From time to time, I will be asking our staff to take on the author’s role to give more context to the barriers we see in healthcare and what we are doing as an organization to overcome them.
For more than two decades, Spectrum Health Care has worked to quell the number of new cases of STDs/STIs & HIV in our 37-county North Central Region. We have implemented programs that reach deep into at-risk communities. As we plan for our future, we are building a care system that extends far beyond the STD/STI & HIV prevention realm; we are now focused on bettering your whole health. In upcoming blogs, we will look at the trends informing our transformation into a leading healthcare resource in the Central Region. I will commit to using publicly available and vetted information; we do not want to muddy the waters any more than they already are. This first blog focuses on some data analysis that came out of our Prevention Education program. I hope you find it as exciting and, sadly, as problematic as I do.
I must admit that I am a bit of a research nerd. I love looking at the outcome data and trying to identify trends. Once that is done, I can get to work finding solutions to the evidence-based statistics. For the past five years, we have seen increases in STD/STI & HIV rates in the region. So with that knowledge in hand, I started to create some comparison data tables; what we would have expected to see is a precipitous drop in the number of reported cases in the first part of 2020, and we have not. The public data that has been published by the Missouri Department of Health & Senior Services shows that our region only had an 8.45% drop in reported cases compared to the same period in 2019. The reporting period is publicly available if for the full year of 2019 and the first four months of 2020, so I only compared the first four months each year. The percent change is even more problematic when you look at access to testing services. Most STD/STI testing locations stopped testing at the beginning of the pandemic (March and April). It must be assumed that the persons seeking out testing and treatment were symptomatic, and those who are asymptomatic are still, potentially, spreading their STD/STI to others.
I know that personal behavior was modified all over the place. We were asked to physically distance, keep to our home groups, wear masks, aggressively handwash/sanitize, and get tested for COVID-19 if we had contact with a possible positive. Safe to say that most of us modified our daily interactions. Should we not have expected to see the same safety measures being implemented with our sexual partners?
What did we miss? Where did our messaging go off-base?
I never expected people to start living a chaste existence; I am not that naïve. I did have a genuine expectation that people would connect the dots and see how personal safety was now more critical than ever. Personal safety is not an exclusive concept for COVID; it is for all our interpersonal interactions. I have presented more times than I can count on keeping yourself safe while being sexually active.
I have always focused on the Harm Reduction Model when having these sorts of conversations; Harm Reduction Models focus on what a person is willing to do to make their behavior safer without changing the activity’s core. For example, condom usage; if you never use a condom, I would talk with you and see if you would agree to use a condom with a person the first time you have sex with them. This action wouldn’t be the safest, but it moves them along the spectrum toward safer behavior, and over time we can take a similar small step on that safety spectrum. I don’t really expect someone to go from doing nothing to being a prevention superhero; that’s now how people work.
If I were to stop and think about the data, I shouldn’t be surprised by the numbers. I have read countless articles about the uptick in traffic on online dating and hookup sites. I incorrectly assumed that would correlate to an increase in cybersex as people would apply the COVID safety rules to their sex life the same way they were to their daily living. I guess it’s safe to say that our basic need to have intimate interaction outweighs our need to be safe; I will have to revisit Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs to see how to rectify this.
Now, where does this leave us?
Do I need to make sure that a mask is included in our prevention kits, hand sanitizer along with lube? Or do I just wait this out and hope for the best, because that always works out well when applied to public health, right? What will it take for the sexually active public to make the leap to fun AND safe encounters? This is not a rhetorical question. I really want to know. If you recall, Spectrum Health Care has been doing this work for more than two decades, almost three, and I have been doing this work for nearly as long. I keep up on trends, I can tell you more than you ever wanted to know about lube and condoms, I can teach to diverse groups and a wide range of ages. I feel like we have an entire team of highly trained educators and they, like me, study and modify and conduct research to find the best practices to keep people safe.
Should I be resigned to the data, chalk it up to a fight against human nature?
Well, poo to all that!
I will ensure that Spectrum Health Care continues to seek out the best ways to keep us all safe. I will keep having frank conversations about sexual health and ensure that this part of public health is delivered in a medically accurate, non-judgmental way.
Here is the bottom line, data shows that people will have sex no matter what the global condition is. It has always been that way and always will be, is my guess. We will continue to see STD/STI cases, as much as I would like to change that I won’t be able too. I will continue to relay the data in hopes that some of it will turn on the light, and someone will be safer as a result. I will continue to push the message that safe sex is fun sex; you can take that worry off your list and feel more uninhibited. I will continue to find ways to ensure that EVERYONE can get tested, even when that is contrary to the current guidance. The bottom line is that I want everyone to be happy, happy with their sexual activity, and happy that they are safe.
Now, how do you wrap up a blog like this?
I presented some not so happy data, got way up on my soapbox, and used the word “sex” more times than most of you would be comfortable with. I know what works, I can teach you how to be safe and have fun at the same time, and I can give examples of people who have done it and are healthier as a result.
So, I leave you with this: Stay Happy and Safe, my friends, YOU. ARE. WORTH. IT.
#Pandemic #Prevention #SaferSex #Sex #Statistics #STD