Students, health professionals talk about STI resources on campus and citywide

Colleen Hogan

April was STI Awareness Month and although HIV cases have decreased since the 1980’s, 38,000 Americans and more than 600 Chicago residents are still diagnosed each year, according to an April 18 report from the Sun-Times.

The most recent HIV and STI surveillance report in 2019 conducted by the Chicago Public Health Department reported 652 new HIV cases diagnosed to residents in 2019 — a 14% decrease compared to the prior year.

Hadeis Safi, manager of community programs and initiatives for the Division of Adolescent Medicine at Lurie Children’s Hospital and the LGBTQ+ liaison for the Department of Pediatrics, is part of the group that partners with Columbia and other colleges in the area to provide free sexually transmitted infection screening on college campuses.

“[Testing] is what you do if you’re having sex,” Safi said. “If you’re not comfortable getting STI screenings and HIV screenings … make sure you’re using condoms or some form of biomedical prevention, and note that if you are uncomfortable receiving those services, you might want to rethink those actions, specifically around having sex because STIs are just a part of the human experience. They’re not a new thing. They didn’t just show up in the ’80s.”

Dr. Beverly Anderson, associate dean of Student Health and Support, said the health center has partnered with Lurie Children’s Hospital since 2018 to offer free testing on campus for 10 students once a month from noon to 4:30 p.m. on Thursdays. Students can call the Health Center to make an appointment.

Anderson said the 10 slots are not always filled, but sometimes students reserve an appointment and do not show up, which prohibits other students from getting tested.

According to the Health Center’s website, if students need testing resources on a day when on-campus testing is not offered, they will be directed to free services elsewhere in the city. Testing is not offered in the summer or during December or January due to holidays, and STI treatment is not offered on campus.

Anderson said the partnership with Lurie Children’s Hospital provides referrals to primary care, mental health care and support groups for students who test positive for an STI.

But from October 2021 through January 2022, Safi said their group at Lurie Children’s Hospital was short-staffed and unable to visit Columbia’s campus to administer screening, but still offered free screening at the hospital, 225 E. Chicago Ave.

Some students voiced concerns about the STI testing resources provided by the health center.

Ariana Kanaya, a senior acting major, said she had to use city resources due to Columbia’s testing days not coordinating with her schedule.

“I would love if Columbia provided resources that are easily accessible and regularly accessible and not something that we wait around for,” Kanaya said.

Spencer Washington, a first-year graduate student studying creative writing, said they were not aware that Columbia even offered STI testing at the Health Center.

“I haven’t heard of it since I’ve been here.” Washington said, adding that all students, regardless of their year of study, should be aware of testing on campus.

Washington instead found free testing services at Howard Brown Health Center and Out Of The Closet — a nonprofit thrift store that also offers HIV testing resources.

Anderson said she wants students to get tested and take advantage of the free service, but is unsure of the best way to reach students.

“I would love to know how [students] would prefer to receive the information because we want them to take advantage of it because it’s a free service. And then by the same token, I would like them to consider that if you do sign up for an appointment, to keep your appointment,” Anderson said.

Sara Valdivia, prevention coordinator for the Adolescent Medicine Division at Lurie Children’s Hospital, said if a student is looking for services during a time when their campus is not offering screenings, they can reach out and schedule an appointment at the hospital’s location.

Planned Parenthood is another STI and HIV testing resource for students. Although their services are not free, Yvonne Oldaker, the associate medical director of Planned Parenthood of Illinois, said they will work with the client’s insurance provider and have a sliding scale of payments based on the patient’s income.

According to the CDC, a person should be tested once a year or if they have a new partner. Oldaker also recommends getting tested if any symptoms of an STI occur or if there are doubts about your partner’s sexual activities.

Mya Lyman, a senior film major, said she needed an STI test during spring break this semester, but Planned Parenthood had no appointments available at the time. Lyman said they were also not able to find resources at Columbia and traveled back to California over spring break and got tested there.

“Health services, in general, need to be made available, but especially on college campuses, as it’s very much a stepping stone into … a person being aware that you should get frequently tested,” Lyman said. “If a college was very open about that and had the services, they could get people in the habit of being tested.”

Safi said they want students to know many people are affected by STIs, and it is responsible to let someone know they need to get tested.

“If somebody makes you feel bad for communicating with them that you had an STI and that they should get screened, they’re not a nice person, and you’re doing the right thing by letting somebody know what they need to do to take care of themselves,” Safi said. “There’s nothing wrong with having an STI. It happens. It happens to a lot of people.