COVID-19 has pushed the U.S. health care system—as well as systems in other countries—to the brink. The pandemic has also put many people, especially poor and marginalized women, in a position of making difficult decisions concerning their own sexual and reproductive health. It has put these women and others at greater risk of not getting access to the information, resources, social services, and health care they need because of the threat of contracting coronavirus. Reproductive and sexual health care are essential, and in these trying times, accessing them is getting harder. Here are seven tips to help point you to resources and advice during this potentially stressful time surrounding your sexual health.
With many doctors offering their services via video chat and other platforms, telehealth can be very beneficial to many during this difficult time. It can allow you to get face time with a doctor or health care professional and help you get a diagnosis or even a prescription or refill, depending on your circumstances.
“If you don’t have any urgent symptoms or concerns, you may be able to talk to your health care provider over the phone or on a video call,” said Tracy Bennett, M.D., senior vice president at Ceek Women’s Health, a Portland, Oregon–based women’s health care company. “Some examples [of telehealth] that aren’t urgent include a birth control prescription, help with menopause symptoms, mental health care, and a routine check-in after a surgery or procedure,” she said. Telehealth can provide a safe alternative to going into your doctor’s office right now and can also help you get answers to questions you may have. Many doctors now have the capacity to do telehealth, and it is a good thing to consider, especially if you have concerns around your sexual health and other medical issues.
“Your doctor or clinician can perform a telephone call or video visit to discuss concerns/symptoms patients may be having,” Megan Schmitt, M.D., of Park Nicollet Methodist Hospital in St. Louis Park, Minnesota, said. “If, during the phone call, the doctor/clinician determines a physical exam is warranted, the patient can then be scheduled for this component of the visit with an in-person visit. ... Concerns regarding abnormal vaginal bleeding, discharge, or other symptoms may be addressed, and initial diagnostic steps can be started, such as scheduling ultrasound or lab work, after the phone/video call.”
Getting Birth Control and Hormone Prescriptions Filled During COVID-19
For people who need it, getting access to birth control right now may be harder than normal. One thing to keep in mind is that there are multiple kinds of birth control. Some are long-acting, such as an intrauterine device (IUD) or the implant, so they require a visit to a GYN and require a health care professional such as a doctor or nurse to insert them. Others, such as the pill, patch, and ring, require a refill, and the shot requires administration by a health care professional. Other methods, such as condoms, spermicide, and the morning-after pill, are sold widely over the counter throughout the U.S. and are also available online to purchase.
If you currently are on a form of birth control that requires a prescription, first try contacting the doctor who prescribed it. Health care professionals understand the reality of right now, and many will want to work with you to find a solution to get you the prescription or refill you need. If you require a prescription that needs to be refilled, pharmacies across the country are still open.
Another option is seeing if it can be refilled by mail. This is a service that some doctors, pharmacies, and insurance companies provide. Having it delivered right to your door or mailbox can also help ease your mind about having to leave the house and get the medication you need. You can also see if you are able to get a few months’ worth of the prescription filled, for your own peace of mind, as well.
If you are a transgender person who needs prescriptions refilled for hormone therapy, if you are an existing patient, many doctors will refill the prescription via the phone or through a website. Asking for a few months’ supply can also help lessen the worry of not being able to access your medication.
If you’re not able to get birth control from a doctor or nurse, some states allow pharmacists to prescribe it. Currently, if you live in California, Colorado, the District of Columbia, Hawaii, Idaho, Maryland, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, or West Virginia, you can get your birth control prescription from a pharmacist. However, there are some stipulations in play depending on where you live, such as your age, if you are pregnant, your medical history, and other factors. If you live in one of these states and are seeking more information, visit Bedsider, an online birth control support network.
Abortion is legal in all 50 states in the U.S. However, it is something that is time-sensitive. If you find yourself in a position where you may require this procedure, first consult with your doctor and see if they are able to assist you. Another option is also seeing what hours and services are available to you at your local Planned Parenthood. Even during the pandemic, they are still open and are helping people get access to the resources they need for their sexual and reproductive health.
If you are in an area where there is no Planned Parenthood, there are still options available to you, and there is no need to panic. First, confirm you are pregnant through a pregnancy test. From there, decide the best course of action for you.
Your first line of defense should always be your regular GYN or primary care physician. Try calling them and seeing if they are able to refer you to an abortion provider within your area. Organizations such as the National Abortion Federation can help people find a provider state by state and can help get you access to the care you need.
Other issues, such as cost in addition to location, should not be a barrier if getting an abortion is a procedure that you need. The National Network of Abortion Funds has money set aside for individuals who are worried about covering the cost of the procedure and can also help people find a provider.
Ann Rose’s Abortion Clinics Online also has resources and state-by-state information giving people an idea of where to obtain this procedure.
At-Home STI Tests
If you have sex, there is always the potential you may be exposed to sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and HIV—even if you take precautions. If you find yourself in a position where you may have been exposed to an STI, the first thing you should do is contact your doctor to see if you are able to be tested through them or locate a clinic. Often, if you are a current patient with a health care provider, they may also be able to treat you over the phone or via telehealth.
Another option is at-home tests for HIV, chlamydia, gonorrhea, and trichomoniasis. There are a number of websites that offer them, such as MyLAB Box, Lemonaid Health, LetsGetChecked, and others. These sites do not offer testing for every STI, so take this into consideration before using them. Prices do vary from site to site; however, if you have health insurance, your insurance may cover it, so be sure to check with them first.
Tips to Avoid the Spread of COVID-19 During Sex
If you are having sex at this time, there are a few things to keep in mind.
“Sexual activity involves close contact with other individuals,” said Schmitt. “[COVID-19] can be spread to people who are within 6 feet, and through saliva and mucus. You should avoid sexual intercourse with new partners and/or partners living outside your home. Sexual intercourse should take place between consenting adults.”
Here are some tips recommended by the New York City health department to avoid contracting COVID-19:
- Masturbating will not spread COVID-19, particularly if you wash your hands before and after with soap and water for 20 seconds, as well as any sex toys you are using.
- If you choose to have sex with a partner, a person you live with is the next safest option.
- Reduce the risk of either spreading or contracting COVID-19 by not having sex with people outside your household at this time, if possible. If you choose to, try to have as few partners as possible.
- Avoid kissing your partner unless they are part of your immediate, close group of contacts. Kissing can pass COVID-19.
- Using condoms and dental dams can also help reduce the spread of the virus and your exposure to STIs.
- Practicing good hygiene is more important now than ever, so washing up before and after sex is vital.
- After engaging in sexual activity, wash hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds.
- Be sure to wash all sex toys with soap and water, and do not share them.
- Remember to disinfect any screens or keyboards you share with other people, such as your phone, tablet, computer, etc.
There are also several apps you can download to keep track of your own reproductive and sexual health and help keep you safe:
Check out the apps available through the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which can provide you with a lot of information on COVID-19, sexual health, and other health resources.
Bedsider has a number of resources available, such as information about sexual health, birth control delivery, a reminder you can use for your birth control, a period tracker, and more.
Planned Parenthood’s app allows you to find clinics nearby, book an appointment, refill birth control prescriptions, access test results, and more.
This is a stressful time for everyone, and one way to help reduce some of the anxieties you may be experiencing around having sex is to talk to your partner. Consent is everything. Whether you are married, are in a long-term committed relationship, or have a casual relationship, every time you engage in sexual activity with someone, their consent—and yours—must be given. Talking through your larger issues and explaining what is bothering you can help improve your communication around your sexual needs and wants and can get you and your partner in a better place during this difficult time.
“Talking openly and honestly with your partner about your sexual needs can help bring you both closer together and promote sexual fulfillment,” said Bennett.
Although the situation with COVID-19 is evolving, there are many things you can do to promote your own health and sexual safety at this time. Make smart sexual choices, check in with your doctor about current prescriptions or any issues you are having, and try to use telehealth as much as possible. Remember to wash your hands often, with soap and water, for 20 seconds—and in the meantime, stay safe and be well.