Call it an example of hitting two birds with one stone.
While COVID-19 has been the focus of Dr. Lisa Barrett's work since the pandemic began in Nova Scotia, it isn't the only infectious disease she keeps an eye on.
Barrett has previously worked on the study and prevention of HIV, hepatitis C and other sexually transmitted infections, which is why her latest public health initiative pairs a COVID-19 test with a condom.
Since the end of September, volunteers have been roaming the streets of downtown Halifax on weekends between the hours of 10 p.m. and 1 a.m., handing out what Barrett has dubbed "protection packs." Each sealed package contains one take-home rapid antigen test and one condom.
"Play safe!" reads the label, which also includes stylized graphics of the test and condom to be found inside, and the cheeky captions, "Going Out" and "Going In."
"As we get more social in certain situations, people are going to be out there getting back together," Barrett said in an interview.
"If we're going to give a COVID test, wouldn't it be a great opportunity to add some extra protection layers to our community and make sure that people have access to condoms?"
Barrett said she thinks the condoms help reduce the stigma of picking up a COVID-19 testing kit.
"There's a heck of a lot more endorsement of getting a protection pack than there is to getting a COVID test when you're out having fun," she said.
Barrett has become well known in Nova Scotia over the past year for organizing and promoting rapid COVID-19 testing through volunteer-run pop-ups. The testing took off last fall along with the province's second wave, which was spreading primarily among young, socially active people going to downtown bars and restaurants.
A similar trend has emerged in the ongoing fourth wave, with community spread happening in the 20- to 40-year-old subset of Halifax, hence Barrett's chosen location for distributing the protection packs.
She said she hopes to continue with the packs for as long as the current trend in COVID-19 spread persists, supplies last and volunteers are available to hand them out.
Jessica Wood, a researcher with the Sex Information and Education Council of Canada, said she hasn't seen a COVID-19 and sexual health mashup quite like this one before, but she's hoping to see more like it.
"During the pandemic and as we come out of the pandemic, safer sex should include COVID-19 risk reduction strategies," Wood said in an interview.
"This was an initiative that did a good job of pairing COVID risk reduction strategies with safer sex strategies, and I think that's a really good step for normalizing both."
Wood said it could go even further by including additional sexual health information — something she said has been limited by the pandemic, especially for young people who have experienced school disruptions because of lockdowns.
Fewer options for sexual health care
The pandemic has also limited access to sexual health care.
In Nova Scotia, STI testing has been suspended several times over the past 19 months as resources have been redeployed to COVID-19 efforts.
Wood said that's true of many jurisdictions, in addition to reductions in access to some sexual health treatments, reproductive health services and HPV vaccination.
Barrett said that while those suspensions were necessary, they likely mean rates of STIs in Nova Scotia are slightly higher than health officials know — all the more reason to ensure people have access to protection, she said.
In the first weekend of distributing the protection packs, Barrett said more than 600 were handed out.
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