I was recently interviewed, as a gay psychiatrist treating gay patients who lived through the AIDS epidemic, abouton living through a COVID pandemic: Were there parallels and contrasts between the two? A month later, listening to patients remotely via teletherapy, I’m experiencing an unsettling similarity to serosorting, a phenomenon that emerged during the AIDS epidemic.
Serosorting is the practice of choosing a sexual partner based on their HIV serostatus. Sorting out who was positive from who was negative allowed people to give themselves permission to have unprotected sex without risk of getting HIV. However, it was not uncommon to make those decisions without really knowing a potential partner’s actual serostatus. In fact, a lot of people serosorted by guessing.
Why not just ask a potential partner, “What’s your serostatus?” Apparently, for some, introducing the subject of HIV was deemed a sexual buzzkill. Instead, assumptions were made based on outer appearances.
Did someone look healthy? Were they well built? Were they overweight, meaning not emaciated from AIDS? If so, they were presumed negative and safe to have risky, unprotected sex with them.
Some imagined age correlated with serostatus. Since anyone older than some arbitrary age – like 30, to pull a number out of a hat – was expected to be more likely to have HIV than someone under 30, they would use that guideline in choosing sexual partners. However, these decisions were made without factual knowledge, like a blood test, but using some internal reasoning process.
Which brings us to what might be called “COVID-sorting.”
Some of my patients believe they had COVID-19, although they’d not been tested to either confirm or disprove that belief. Others had positive COVID-19 antibody tests, which they believe provides immunity. Among that group, some had symptoms, others did not.
Yet regardless of what they actually know or don’t know, patients are making calculations about managing physical distancing using their own internal formulas. They make risk calculations having little to do with actual knowledge of public health precautions on preventing COVID’s spread.
For example, one patient was planning a Memorial Day weekend in a shared Fire Island house with five friends and acquaintances. All six live alone and, as far as he knows, all are physically distancing. Consequently, my patient doesn’t think house-sharing is anything to worry about, even though he doesn’t know how scrupulously others have followed distancing guidelines.
Another patient, recovering at home after being ill with COVID-19, felt safe inviting someone over for sex who had also been ill and recovered. He didn’t think they could infect each other, presuming, not altogether unreasonably, they were both immune.
Finally, there are those who don’t know whether they had COVID-19, but think they did because they experienced influenza-like symptoms. They are giving themselves permission to meet up with others who feel the same.
Yet a Mount Sinai study, which has not yet been peer-reviewed, raises fascinating issues about immunity. The study included 719 people who suspected they had COVID-19 based on some respiratory symptoms. The majority, 62%, had no antibodies. Researchers believe they mistook influenza, another viral infection, or allergies for COVID-19 (medRxiv. 2020 May 5.).
The study also included 624 people who tested positive for the virus and recovered. All but three developed antibodies. Many assume those who are antibody-positive are now immune. They may be right. However, we don’t know definitively that they are, and if they are, we do not yet know how long immunity may last. Further, asin the New York Times, just because you test positive for antibodies, doesn’t mean you have them.
It should be underscored that COVID-sorting is not limited to gay men or psychiatric patients.And as many states have begun opening up restrictions on social gatherings, we are seeing an all-too-human psychological mindset with wider implications – rising numbers of cases. As we move forward, all of us will have to decide for ourselves, and not only in sexual situations, how to get on with our lives in a post–COVID-19 era.
Given how much is still unknown, it is likely each of us will come up with our own algorithm of risk assessment. It is likely that the formulas used will not necessarily be based on scientific facts, although that would be ideal. If past epidemic and recent pandemic behaviors are any indicators, people’s actions will reflect some combination of their own needs and desires, their own comfort level with risk-taking, and their relative understanding of complex subjects like virology, immunology, epidemiology, and public health. The challenge faced by public health officials today is to translate complex scientific and medical issues into messages average people can understand.
What exactly can be done? I’m not exactly sure, but I hope that improved education and communication can help. In the first 2 decades of the AIDS epidemic, efforts were made to change and tailor HIV-prevention messages to specific, at-risk demographic groups. Today, public health messages aimed at preventing COVID-19’s spread that resonate with older people can fall on a younger person’s deaf ears. One message size does not fit all. Hopefully, public health officials and government leaders will act on this sooner rather than later.
Dr. Drescher, a psychoanalyst, is clinical professor of psychiatry at Columbia University, and training and supervising analyst at the William A. White Institute, both in New York. He also is emeritus editor of the. Dr. Drescher has no other disclosures.