State and local health departments issue sexual health guidelines during COVID-19

979
Photo: Philadelphia Dept. Of Public Health

Earlier this month, the State of Pennsylvania issued guidelines for sexual health and practices during the COVID-19 pandemic. Montgomery County also recently issued guidelines. Both follow the actions taken by Philadelphia’s Department of Public Health, as well as Erie and Allegheny Counties, who released similar guidelines in May. Pennsylvania has seen an uptick in COVID cases in the past month.

“For many people, the stay-at-home time has passed,” said Adrian Shanker, Executive Director of the Bradbury-Sullivan Community Center. “It’s also unrealistic to think people will avoid sex until this has passed. We are empowering our community to make healthy decisions during this time period.”

The state guidelines which give “Four Strategies to Reduce the Risk of Spreading COVID-19 During Sex” remind readers that it is clear that the virus is spread through saliva, mucus, and respiratory droplets, and that people who have no symptoms can still spread the virus.

The guidelines state that if a person chooses to have sex with others outside of their household, limiting the number of partners, talking about the risks of COVID-19, and asking about COVID-19 status before meeting are all ways to reduce ones risk of infection, though “asking about symptoms is not a perfect way to know whether someone has COVID-19.” Wearing face coverings during sex, avoiding kissing, as well as washing hands before and after sex are also ways to help reduce the risk of infection. The guidelines also state that in lieu of in-person encounters, “Video dates, sexting, subscription-based fan platforms, or chat rooms may be options for you.”

The state guidelines also recommend that people who are HIV-negative but are at risk for HIV transmission take PrEP, and encourage individuals living with HIV to achieve and maintain an undetectable viral load.

While COVID-19 is clearly very different from HIV and other sexually transmitted infections, some lessons in terms of how we handle COVID-19 reflect the early days of the AIDS epidemic.

“One of those lessons is that LGBT people must be our own health advocates. To do so requires that we provide information for each other and our broader community about sexual health during COVID-19. That’s why Bradbury-Sullivan LGBT Community Center has led advocacy efforts around this issue in Pennsylvania,” Shanker continued. “We are proud that six months into this pandemic, half of the municipal health bureaus in Pennsylvania have adopted sexual health guidelines, as well as the Pennsylvania Department of Health.”

Valerie A. Arkoosh has served on the Montgomery County Board of Commissioners since 2015, before becoming Chair four years ago. She is also a medical professional. Arkoosh is a licensed anaesthesiologist whose speciality is obstetrics, taking care of families during labor and on the delivery floor. Making sure her constituents are safe is not just a political issue, but a personal one through her profession.

“For the past 32 weeks I have been leading the County’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. My background as a physician coupled with my masters degree in Public Health has been enormously helpful as I have taken on this work,” Arkoosh shared with PGN. She and her team were contacted by Shanker along with Jason Landau Goodman of the Pennsylvania Youth Congress to develop guidelines with a focus on LGBTQ residents. “Our Office of Public Health always tries to be as welcoming, accessible, and inclusive as possible in our communications with the public.”

The language used in the Montgomery County guidelines is honest, straightforward, and almost casual but still informative. 

Sections include: “If you usually meet your sex partners online or make a living by having sex,” and “If you decide to have sex outside of your circle of contacts or a hook up,” and “If two is company then three (or more) is definitely a crowd.” The guidelines provide judgment-free, medically sound advice to protect people regardless of sexual interaction. 

Advice for sex workers or those that make a living through sex is lacking in the state guidelines, because sex work is officially illegal in Pennsylvania. However, the overall message of having an informed public is the same.

“We know COVID-19 is a dangerous and contagious disease that has affected thousands across the Commonwealth. It can spread by droplets when a person coughs, sneezes, or even talks. It can even be shared through surfaces,” a PA Department of Health spokesperson told PGN. “The recommendations presented in these guidelines are to provide guidance to individuals as to the best way to prevent potential infection with COVID-19 during sexual activity.”