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From http://www.cdc.gov/narms/images/pills-hands-300px.jpg

The world has found itself in the clutches of a pandemic, and every day we’re learning about the ripple effects this new virus is having in everyone’s lives, not just the lives of those who cross its path. These devastating consequences include millions of people losing their jobs and hospitals stretched so far past capacity that they can’t adequately treat all their patients.

There are plenty of other downstream effects, too. For example, some people are worried that we could be staring down the barrel of a shortage of a common antibiotic called azithromycin, which cures chlamydia — the most common sexually transmitted bacteria in the world. Nine drug manufacturers recently reported azithromycin shortages to the Federal Drug Administration. With chlamydia rates at a record high, 2020 is a bad time for the antibiotic that cures it to be in short supply. Untreated, chlamydia can cause infertility and chronic pain, and can increase risk for HIV transmission and acquisition.

Apparently, the president of our country, who is not a health expert by any stretch of the imagination, endorsed azithromycin as a treatment for COVID-19 in combination with a drug that treats lupus and arthritis. There isn’t much in the way of evidence that the drug combination recommended by the president actually can treat COVID-19, but there are currently clinical trials underway, so time will tell how effective that regimen actually is.

Others worried about a possible condom shortage after the world’s top manufacturer temporarily shuttered its doors. Karex, based in Malaysia, makes 1 out of 5 condoms on Earth, or 5 billion condoms a year — in our country, they are marketed by Durex. After the government ordered its factories closed, the world was down 100 million condoms in just three weeks. Fortunately, they were then given permission to restart production, but with only half of their workforce.

Given that condoms are the best tool for sexually active people who wish to avoid sexually transmitted infections — not to mention the fact that so many people rely on them for pregnancy prevention — a dip in the world’s condom supply could translate into upticks in unintended pregnancies and HIV transmission, plus new cases of infections like gonorrhea and chlamydia. Once more, time will tell.

The strain on the health care system should inspire us to take our sexual health into our own hands as much as we can, and these days safer sex means so much more than condoms. Welcome to the era of “social distancing.”

Humans are social creatures, which clashes with the idea of social distancing. In fact, the World Health Organization and other health authorities wish we’d call it “physical distancing,” because thanks to technology we still have ways to be social — on the phone, through texting and email, via social media, through video-chat platforms, and even through the mail! It’s the physical distance that’s important, as the virus that causes COVID-19 is transmitted through close contact with people who have it, or by touching contaminated surfaces. That’s why we’re being told to stay inside — to protect ourselves from exposure.

Living With Your Partner?

Remember that the virus that causes COVID-19 can be transmitted in the absence of symptoms, so if you’re sheltering in place with a consenting sexual partner, you can step up your infection control by using condoms and dental dams. Saliva and feces both carry the virus, so bring them out during oral and anal sex. By now, you should know to wash your hands with soap and water for 20 seconds frequently, and definitely before eating or after sneezing or coughing. You can add before and after sex to that list.

If one of you is exhibiting symptoms, you should try to live as separately as possible for 14 days to be on the safe side (including separate bedrooms and bathrooms if available). Gynecologist Jen Gunter, MD, says that if you and your partner are breathing the same air and touching the same surfaces, you’re already at risk, even if you’re wearing an N95 mask. It’s unknown what role sexual contact plays in coronavirus transmission, but you should still stay outside of a six-foot radius with a live-in partner who has symptoms, such as a dry cough or a fever, in addition to being diligent about hand washing and cleaning surfaces.

Living Apart from Your Partner?

People who don’t live with a partner can learn from people who have been in long-distance relationships and are well-versed in staying connected even when far apart. Use technology to stay connected, whether you’re on the phone or texting while watching the same streaming movie, video chatting while cooking dinner, or sharing your days through photos or videos. You and a trusted partner can also connect sexually by engaging in phone sex, sexting, or video sex.

What Else You Should Know, No Matter Your Relationship Status

You don’t need a partner to express yourself sexually. Planned Parenthood suggests spending some one-on-one time with yourself engaging in solo sex (i.e., masturbation!). Make sure to wash your hands — and any sex toys — before and after for 20 seconds with soap and water. You can also consider channeling your creativity through writing a steamy story, reading someone else’s steamy story, or putting together a sexy playlist.

As a provider of essential health care, Planned Parenthood is open for its regular services, such as pregnancy tests, birth control, testing and treatment for sexually transmitted diseases, and breast exams. Additionally, anyone with a smart phone can maintain social distancing through the Planned Parenthood Direct app. You also can get your sexual health questions answered by a chatbot called Roo, and track your period using the Spot On app.

Tags: sexting, Phone sex, condom, coronavirus, covid-19, sexually transmitted infections, chlamydia, masturbation, STD Awareness, STDs, STIs, sexual health, dental dams

About Anna C.

Anna first volunteered for Planned Parenthood as a high school student in the 1990s. Since then, she has received a bachelor’s degree from UC Berkeley and a master's degree in epidemiology from the University of Arizona. As an ode to her fascination with microbes, she writes the monthly STD Awareness series, as well as other pieces focusing on health and medicine.