Research Story Tip: Johns Hopkins Medicine At-Home STI Test Kit Still Popular Even as Pandemic Demand Wanes

06/23/2021

When many social and health care service organizations had to shut their doors during the first few months of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Baltimore City Health Department (BCHD) was among them. Fortunately, BCHD was still able to provide free, accurate and confidential screening for sexually transmitted infections (STIs) by referring its clients to a trusted, reliable partner — Johns Hopkins Medicine — and its I Want the Kit (IWTK) at-home testing program.

Now, as more of the population gets vaccinated against COVID-19 and access to STI-testing clinics has resumed, the people behind IWTK have documented a very interesting trend: The number of diagnostic kits requested has remained high even though the pandemic-driven need has lessened.

“IWTK offered a way to provide high quality testing, telemedicine follow-up and targeted treatment during BCHD’s COVID-19 shutdown, but we’ve found that the convenience, ease and privacy associated with an at-home test continues make our kit very popular on its own merits,” says Yukari Manabe, M.D., director of the Center for Innovative Diagnostics for Infectious Diseases in the Division of Infectious Diseases and professor of medicine at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. “There’s been no drop off in demand to pre-COVID levels.”

Since its beginning in 2004, the IWTK program has conducted STI screenings for thousands of people in Maryland thanks to funding and support from its strong partnership with BCHD and the Maryland Department of Health. In 2011, the program expanded into Alaska through a contract with the state and a second partnership with the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium. More recently, a contract with the State of Arizona and a partnership with the Inter Tribal Council of Arizona broadened the program’s reach once more.

“The Alaska and Arizona programs are critically important to combat the disproportionally high numbers of STI cases among the indigenous American populations in both states,” says Gretchen Armington, M.A., project administrator for the Johns Hopkins Center for Point-of-Care Technologies Research for Sexually Transmitted Diseases and director of the IWTK program.

By requesting the discreetly packaged at-home testing kit — which contains sample collection swabs and transport tubes, instructions, a contact form, information on STIs, a biohazard bag and a pre-paid mailer — people be tested for chlamydia and gonorrhea by the Johns Hopkins Medicine laboratories.

Manabe says the trust people have in Johns Hopkins Medicine is a major reason that the IWTK test kits continue to be in demand.

“People feel that at-home testing eliminates the stigma attached with going to a clinic,” she explains. “And they come to us for that testing because, unlike other mail-in diagnostic services, we’re a free resource, we’re focused on STI reduction through easily accessed and user-friendly testing, and our quality is transparent.”

Armington adds that she and her colleagues are innovating the IWTK program to make it even more effective.

“For example, we are actively upgrading our website to be more than just a place to order an STI testing kit,” she says. “After requesting their kit, users can easily navigate our site to get current STI information, links to social services and counseling, options for treatment, and much more.”

Manabe and Armington are available for interviews.