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A Condom For COVID-19: Why Talking About Pandemic Safety Is A Lot Like Talking About Safe Sex

An estimated 15 billion condoms are manufactured each year and 750 million people use them.
An estimated 15 billion condoms are manufactured each year and 750 million people use them.

The public health similarities between asking someone to wear a condom and wearing a mask. And how to reach different communities with more effective messaging around public health issues.

In Florida, more than 20,000 people have died from COVID-19. There have been more than 1 million cases of the virus in less than a year.

The idea of getting together for the holidays really begs a metaphor: how we think about practicing "safe gathering" can be a lot like how we think about practicing safe sex. People are looking for methods where they can still see their families and try to keep each other safe … a sort-of condom for the pandemic, if you will.

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This is something Monica Skoko Rodriguez has been thinking a lot about. She is the executive director of the Miami-Dade County Commission for Women. Her career in public health spans nursing and being a senior health educator for the Florida Department of Health in Miami-Dade.

WLRN spoke with her about why she sees similarities between talking to people about pandemic safety, and talking to them about STIs — sexually transmitted infections.

The following interview has been edited for clarity and length.

WLRN: Why does this metaphor connecting pandemic safety and safe sex education work?

SKOKO RODRIGUEZ: COVID-19 and STI's in general have so much overlap: they're both highly transmissible.

There is a kind of hero complex that younger people would have around COVID-19 as well as STI's, and there's a kind of individualism that factors in as well. People think, you know, the anecdotes of, "Oh, my cousin got it and she's fine. So of course I can go to this party."

The symptoms and severity vary so widely from person to person. So when we're talking about safe sex, we essentially want to do the exact same thing with COVID. We really want to work from a harm reduction framework.

What is an example of harm reduction?

Instead of telling everyone, stay at your homes, don't do anything, don't go anywhere, don't see anyone, harm reduction is saying your risk of getting COVID, for example, is very high indoors with no mask. But your risk for getting COVID is very low if you are socially distanced, wearing masks outside.

Harm reduction we know works better than, we'll call it the abstinence model. It allows people to understand their personal and public risk and make an informed and calculated decision for themselves.

There is evidence out there that shows only teaching abstinence doesn't keep people from having sex. Why does telling people only what not to do — not work?

People generally want to be good people and do good things. They don't want to be stigmatized. They don't want to feel like they're stupid.

A lot of noncompliance, whether we're talking about STIs or COVID is around lack of understanding and fear.

We don't want to bang them over the head with all of these things they can't do. But we want to tell them, you know, you are going to be an incredible asset to your community and to your family if you wear this mask.

You've got a theory that asking people to wear masks is a lot like the conversation with someone asking them to wear a condom.

We're seeing very similar signs. It's very difficult to ask someone, "Hey, I'm not comfortable with you not wearing a mask." And there's this idea that you just by asking that question, it's almost rude. And we really need to get that out of our heads.

We need to be get much more comfortable as a society asking people about their status, asking people about the last time they got tested and asking people to wear condoms and wear masks.

Obviously, wearing masks happens in more of a public forum than wearing condoms.

We want to make sure that people are understanding one case is very different than the next one. So we really need to make sure messaging is very catered to, very specific communities.

Different messengers resonate in different ways. So for some communities, it might be hearing from their pastor. For others, it might be hearing from a team member of the Miami Heat. So it's really important to get trusted individuals.

They don't need to be celebrities — [they can be] people that are really ingrained in a community. Because I can waltz in and tell people anything and I can tell it to them in their native language. I can tell it to them creatively. But it just won't make the same impact as the people that have a strong impact on that community. We really want the message to come from them.