Rutgers expert discusses impacts of social distancing, limited access to contraception, abortion care

The COVID-19 pandemic is affecting the sexual and reproductive health of adolescents and young adults because of social distancing as well as limited access to contraceptive and abortion care, according to a sexual and reproductive health researcher at the Rutgers School of Public Health who recently published an article on the topic.

Leslie Kantor, a professor and chair of the Rutgers Department of Urban Global Public Health, addresses how these challenges, as well as peer and romantic relationships, are being navigated.

How has the pandemic changed adolescent and young adults’ relationships?
There have been huge changes for adolescents and young adults, including school closures, potentially much more time with family, the interruption of the normal trajectory toward increased independence and, for many, very limited or no physical proximity to sexual and romantic partners. 

Why is sexual and reproductive care for adolescents and young adults important during a pandemic? 
Even though the pandemic may lead to less opportunities for sex for some young people, disruptions in access to contraception and abortion can be extremely problematic for adolescents and young adults who are still able to be physically close to their partners during the pandemic. The good news is that some services, including obtaining many forms of contraception and receiving testing and treatment for sexually transmitted diseases can be handled through telemedicine.  If telemedicine remains as widely available as it has been during the coronavirus pandemic, access to sexual and reproductive health care may actually improve for young people. However, we know that lack of privacy and confidentiality, which many adolescents and young adults are experiencing while living at home with family, can also hinder the ability to get necessary sexual and reproductive healthcare. 

Are fewer young people being tested for sexually transmitted infections or seeking abortion care?
We do not have a lot of data specifically on young people. But many states have tried to restrict abortion access by arguing it is not an essential service despite the fact that abortion clearly is essential and needs to be timely. There have been very concerning declines in vaccinations for all children older than age 2 and the use of the HPV vaccine, which prevents cancer-causing infections and pre-cancers, has plummeted. 

How have LGBTQ youth been impacted?
Fortunately, many LGBTQ centers quickly moved support groups and other services online. Services such as QChat Space were already using digital platforms to convene and offer support to LGBTQ youth. However, for some youth whose families are less accepting, being quarantined for months can lead to significant tensions and confidentiality concerns, which could make LGBTQ youth more isolated. 

How does the social disruption resulting from the pandemic affect young adults’ sense of health and well-being?
One positive aspect is that young adults are digital natives familiar with online platforms and social media. However, maintaining relationships with friends and romantic partners at a distance can be challenging. Young people are supposed to be gaining independence at this time in life, so for those who have had to return home after a period of being away, that may be particularly challenging.