The University of Maryland will provide free individual STI testing appointments through the fall and spring, program coordinator Jenna Beckwith Messman wrote in an email on Wednesday.
For several years, the University of Maryland has held large testing events, partnering with community organizations to support other testing events — educating students and providing them with resources.
But now, in light of COVID-19 canceling many of the regular events, the university’s sexual health budget has been shifted to provide sexually transmitted infections testing appointments instead, Messman wrote. This change was enacted partially in response to students informing the University Health Center that testing was a priority, she wrote.
STIs are not just a concern at the university — they have run rampant through Prince George’s County for several years. A Prince George’s County health rankings report shows the area has had high STI rates since 2014.
The county had some of the highest rate of infections out of all Maryland counties, according to a 2018 Maryland Department of Health report. Prince George’s County also saw some of the highest numbers of chlamydia cases, and the health department found that College Park had an incidence rate of more than 800 cases per 100,000 people in 2018.
Despite these alarming rates, Thurka Sangaramoorthy, who has worked for 22 years in the field of HIV research and is an anthropology professor at this university, said STIs have not been getting the attention they need, especially among college students — adolescents and young adults make up half of all STIs in the United States.
Sangaramoorthy emphasized the importance of treating STIs comprehensively by providing education, awareness, screening and testing — procedures that are not implemented on a national scale due to a lack of funding, she said.
At this university, students can call the University Health Center and schedule an appointment for the Self-Test Clinic option, which will include a 15- to 20-minute pre-test counseling and educational session to ensure the right tests are being taken, Messman wrote. The appointment will ensure students are aware of the other safe-sex information and resources the university provides, such as free condoms, birth control consultations and sexual health consultations, Messman wrote.
After the pre-test, students can self-collect a urine and swab sample and a health center staff member will draw blood. These samples can be tested for gonorrhea, chlamydia, HIV and possibly syphilis, depending on whether the student is at risk. While these tests cannot be conducted remotely, the health center is providing remote services such as delivering free condoms and lube to a student’s home or providing a consultation over the phone.
Free testings, as well as screening and education, are an important part of combatting STIs, Sangaramoorthy said.
“We used to have sexual health clinics where you can walk in and get tested, or get screened, or pick up free condoms,” Sangaramoorthy said. “A lot of health departments have been drastically cut in the kinds of services. One of the major things that have disappeared across the country, including here, are these kinds of sexual health services that used to be very specific.”
The rising STI rates and lack of attention to sexual health have been “working in conjunction” to create a larger issue, Sangaramoorthy said. The issue is not people having more sex, but having fewer resources for treatment and prevention, she said.
“We don’t talk about it even in sort of college settings in the way that we should. Providers in a lot of places are also not really engaging with young folks who are at most risk,” Sangaramoorthy said. “There are lots of things that are going on that I think [are] really impacting some of these general sort of very, very scary trends and concerning trends.”
While this disinvestment from sexual health services is playing out in the background, the coronavirus has entered the scene and thrown a wrench into how people can access resources, as well as the availability of resources, she said.
If someone contracts an STI, they need to be tested and treated immediately, but the pandemic may hinder sexual health services, said epidemiology professor Hongjie Liu.
Additionally, access to preventative measures such as condoms may be limited if people don’t feel comfortable going into stores because of the pandemic, Liu said. Lack of access to preventative measures is particularly important because it can decrease the risk of STIs and the coronavirus.
“We can most importantly have condoms during sex, because condoms not only prevent sexually transmitted disease, potentially prevent the transmission of COVID-19 by semen,” Liu said.
STIs may be missed with many routine doctor’s appointments and specialized care being shifted to telemedicine, Sangaramoorthy said, but it also may provide an opportunity for people to feel more comfortable discussing sexual health in a less intimate setting. On the research side of sexual health, workers who used to contract trace for STIs have shifted to contact tracing for the coronavirus, further diminishing resources, Sangaramoorthy said.
Like the coronavirus, STI rates won’t decrease without knowledge and treatment, Sangaramoorthy said. That’s why university help is so essential.
“Sex is something that isn’t going to go away, it’s not going to stop,” Sangaramoorthy said. “That really makes it very different from other times and situations in terms of behavioral change, so it is about sort of making sure that as a college campus that we are prepared.”