COVID-19, the new STD

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A new STD is afflicting the world. It infects the young and old, the rich and poor, people of all races and educations. It has challenged our nation’s health care system, wreaked havoc on our economy, infected more than 3.5 million Americans and resulted in more than 140,000 deaths — and it’s still spreading. We all know what this STD is: COVID-19. And yes, it is an STD, a “socially transmitted disease.”

Like a sexually transmitted disease, COVID-19 spreads between two people in close physical proximity and is diagnosable with a medical test. Like a sexually transmitted disease, COVID-19 is preventable by engaging in safe social practices. But unlike sexually transmitted diseases, no curative treatments currently exist for COVID-19.

Common best practices used to prevent the spread of sexually transmitted diseases are applicable in preventing people from becoming infected and spreading COVID-19. To avoid contracting most sexually transmitted diseases, either abstinence or using barrier protection such as condoms are effective (treatment as prevention for HIV is another critically important route).

Abstinence during the pandemic involves not engaging in any social interactions — not a reliable, long-term solution, as evidenced by the recent rollback and then reinstatement of shelter-in-place orders. As these orders permanently expire and communities begin to traverse the perilous path of reopening, people will start to interact socially, spending more time with each other in close physical proximity, such as at restaurants and bars. This creates a fertile environment for inadvertent virus transmission.

Individuals may take precautions to avoid contracting COVID-19 when considering initiating social interactions similar to how they would when avoiding contracting sexually transmitted diseases. The following questions allow one to evaluate prospective social partners:

Do prospective social partners wear a face mask (a barrier) when among other people?

Do prospective social partners only socialize with people who wear face masks?

Have prospective social partners been tested for the disease recently?

When exposed to a person who tests positive, do prospective social partners self-quarantine for 14 days?

It is not always apparent that a person has a sexually transmitted disease. In some cases, an infected person may not even be aware that they are infected, yet can infect others. The same holds true with COVID-19 — as many as 90% of infected people have mild symptoms, and as many as 40% are completely asymptomatic, unaware that they are infected and contagious.

This is particularly true of people under 30 years of age (also the age group most likely to flout shelter-in-place or social distancing protocols). One big difference is that COVID-19 has no cure and a high case fatality rate, especially among older people (those over 65) and those with underlying medical conditions such as obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Young people may unintentionally or inadvertently infect their parents and grandparents, leading to poor outcomes for such high-risk people, including hospitalizations and even death.

The chain of sexually transmitted diseases is unending, with Chris infecting Blair, who infects Charlie, who infects Ryan, who infects Tyler, who infects Sam and so forth. Unfortunately, the same chain of transmission exists for COVID-19.

Therefore, precautions taken to avoid and prevent sexually transmitted diseases are similar to those for avoiding and preventing COVID-19, with condoms replaced by face masks. Simply put, every person can take responsibility for their own behavior and actions, and protect themselves, those around them and those with whom they interact. These are choices that each of us can make, with implications for all. This is how we can stop COVID-19, the new STD.

Sheldon Jacobson, Ph.D., is a founder professor of computer science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Janet Jokela, MD, MPH, is the acting regional dean of the University of Illinois College of Medicine at Urbana-Champaign.