Guides for sexual and reproductive health in a pandemic
Anna Selle works at Planned Parenthood. We reached out to ask her to let us know what’s happening in this confusing time. Here’s what she had to say:
It’s been a little more than two months since the first case of COVID-19 was identified in the United States. In those two months, we’ve watched the number of cases slowly increase, state-by-state, as our culture has shifted rapidly to meet the increasing demand for safety. While the global focus has been on how to prevent spread of the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19, there are lingering questions about how this emerging pandemic will affect other aspects of health care, including sexual and reproductive health care.
The Coronavirus and COVID-19
The virus that causes COVID-19 is a novel coronavirus, meaning that it’s a newly tracked strain in a larger family of viruses that have previously been identified and monitored. This family of virus is named for the crown-like spikes that appear on the shell of each individual virion (the singular of virus). Other coronaviruses include SARS and MERS, as well as a handful of other more common coronaviruses that have not caused the same level of disruption or garnered much attention.
Because the virus that causes COVID-19 is so new to researchers, there’s still a lot that we don’t know about it, like how quickly it could mutate or how to treat patients with effective antivirals. But, there are some things that we do know about the novel coronavirus.
First, and most importantly, we know that this coronavirus spreads easily throughout a geographic region, or is what the CDC refers to as “community spread.” What this means is that someone may become sick with COVID-19 without knowing the direct source (or person) that spread the virus to them.
We also know that while COVID-19 may be asymptomatic or totally manageable for many who are infected, it can also cause serious complications, hospitalization, and in severe cases may lead to death.
That ability to spread quickly throughout a population, paired with the ongoing work to develop a vaccine and specific antiviral treatment for the novel coronavirus, is the reason that so many cities and states across the U.S. have declared a state-of-emergency, and issued shelter-in-place orders. During a shelter-in-place order, all non-essential business is limited, and constituents are asked by civic leaders to stay in their homes as much as possible.
Shelter-In-Place and Planned Parenthood
The doors of many companies and organizations will stay open during a shelter-in-place order, including Planned Parenthood’s. In the Kansas City area, all four Planned Parenthood health centers will remain in operation during the shelter-in-place order, though our hours will be limited and we will only be able to allow a small number of patients in the waiting room at any given time.
As a health-care provider, Planned Parenthood falls into the category of what’s considered an “essential” organization. In a time of crisis and a major public health emergency, your access to reproductive and sexual health care continues to be crucially important. For many Planned Parenthood patients, the care they receive cannot be postponed until after shelter-in-place orders are lifted. Abortion care, birth control services, hormone therapy, and STI testing and treatment are time-bound and require consistent access.
What we’re starting to see, however, is a manufactured attack on abortion access during this crisis. Already, federal legislators have tried to use an emergency relief bill as a political pawn in the fight over abortion care, by attempting to attach the Hyde Amendment to a stimulus package that would provide direct support to families across the United States. In Ohio, attorney general Dave Yost ordered “nonessential and elective surgical abortions” cease in response to the outbreak of COVID-19. Texas attorney general, Ken Paxton, issued a similar order. What attacks like this fail to acknowledge is that abortion is always an important and essential component of comprehensive health care – especially in the midst of a global crisis.
Though it feels like the world is on pause, sexual and reproductive health is not. In the Kansas City area, sexual and reproductive health care remains accessible at Planned Parenthood Great Plains’ Overland Park location. Remember that if you need care, you don’t need to wait until after the shelter-in-place order is lifted to schedule an appointment. With that in mind, if you are experiencing symptoms of COVID-19, or if you’ve been exposed to someone with COVID-19, reschedule your appointment to help us keep our health center staff and patients healthy and safe.
Sexual and Reproductive Health at Home
Even with clinic doors open, the advice from health care officials and civic leaders is clear: if you don’t need to leave your house, don’t leave your house. There are several ways you can take care of your sexual and reproductive health from the comfort of home.
Make sure that you have the necessary supplies you need to stay sheltered-in-place and healthy. People who menstruate will likely have a menstruation period during the shelter-in-place order, so double check that you have enough of whatever your preferred hygienic products are. Talk to your doctor about how and when you’ll need to refill your birth control, and see if it’s possible to pick up a multiple-month supply at one time to reduce the number of trips you have to take to the pharmacy. It’s possible that the supply chain of birth control pills could be interrupted during this crisis, so also consider grabbing extra condoms, even if you don’t typically use them, as a back-up. Also think about picking up other items that help keep your body safe during sex, like lubricant.
If you happen to be sheltering-in-place with a sexual partner, remember that communication is incredibly important. Talk about the contraception you want to use, especially if the free time on your hands has led to an increase in physically intimate moments. On the other hand, it is totally normal and okay to feel less inclined to engage in sexual activity with your partner if you don’t want to, and staying home together does not have to mean more sexual contact. Mental health can affect your sex drive, and a lot of us are feeling more anxious and overwhelmed than usual these days.
As much of a bummer as it might be, if either of you has been exposed to the coronavirus or is showing symptoms of COVID-19, you should maintain a distance of 6 feet if possible, and try to stay in separate rooms. The primary way that this coronavirus spreads is through respiratory droplets, which are easily swamped when kissing or when you’re in close proximity to one another. If your sexual partner doesn’t live in the same space as you, avoid the temptation to visit during an active shelter-at-home order, especially if seeing your partner would require you to fill up your car at a gas station, ride public transportation, or travel to another city.
While separated from your partner, think about using this opportunity to connect in new ways, like sexting. This could also be an opportunity to take some time and get better acquainted with your own body through masturbation. Or, this could be a chance to take a break from that form of intimacy if that’s what you need. Being open and honest with your partner about what you want and what you need right now is an important part of maintaining a healthy sexual relationship.
If you have questions about your sexual health during shelter-in-place orders, there are great resources online available to use, like our digital chat line with sex educators!