Public health officials are trying to stop a series of gonorrhea outbreaks in the Northwest. And they’re offering a service to infected patients: anonymous notification of former sexual partners.
That's right. There is a government worker out there whose job it is to call, text, Facebook or track down your exes to let them know they might have an STD. And the job has become a key part of controlling disease outbreaks.
Anna Halloran is kind of like a private investigator.
“I’ve gone to places where homeless people gather. I’ve patrolled the streets of downtown looking for somebody," she says. "I’d say, being able to track someone down like that is really satisfying for me.”
But Halloran doesn’t tell people much about her job, because, well, no one really wants to talk about it.
“I notify people that they may have been exposed to a sexually transmitted infection.
"You may have been exposed"
Halloran works out of a small, third-floor office at the Spokane Regional Health District. She’s one of a couple dozen people around the Northwest who work behind the scenes to try to halt the spread of STDs.
It’s a job that involves a lot of really. Awkward. Phone calls.
Halloran wouldn’t let me record any portion of an actual notification because of confidentiality concerns. But she did dial a co-worker to give me an idea of what you might hear.
“So, I’m calling for kind of an unusual reason," Halloran says. "I’m calling to let you know you may have been exposed to gonorrhea. And I know that this is some difficult news to get …”
Halloran’s job is based on the fact that many people who have an STD don’t know it -- especially when it comes to gonorrhea. It can have very few symptoms until it creates a serious health problem, like pelvic inflammatory disease or infertility.
Patients diagnosed with an STD can opt to give Halloran a list of their sexual partners from the last 90 days, and she’ll deliver the news to them.
“Some people cry, some people get really angry, some people don’t want to talk to me at all," she says. "A lot of people are really anxious to know who it was -- of course, I can’t say anything that would identify that.”
Super gonorrhea - an urgent threat
Now, you might be wondering: Isn’t it the patient’s job to notify ex-partners?
“The first thing would be that people don’t necessarily do that,” says Jocelyn Warren, a researcher at Oregon State University’s College of Public Health and Human Sciences. She says studies show couples -- especially young couples -- don’t communicate about their sexual histories.
Warren says over the years, partner notification services have been adopted as standard practice for curbing outbreaks. Now, gonorrhea is especially making public health officials nervous.
“It does seem that gonorrhea evolves pretty rapidly to be resistant," says Warren. "We’re not seeing drug resistant gonorrhea now, but there certainly there is an expectation that it’s just a matter of time.”
Other countries, however, are seeing drug resistant gonorrhea. Just last month, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control released a report identifying a form of “super gonorrhea” as an urgent threat.
In the Northwest, Washington has seen a 34 percent increase in gonorrhea cases over this time last year. Spokane, Benton, Yakima, Kitsap and Thurston counties are in the midst of a full on outbreak. Oregon has also seen an up-tick this year – in particular, in Lane County. In north Idaho, the number of cases of gonorrhea has increased three-fold over last year.
At the Spokane Regional Health District, Anna Halloran says health officials are still trying to explain the increase.
“You know, I wait for the time when our numbers go down. But I have to keep thinking of it as -- think of what the case rates would be like if we weren’t doing this work.”
Halloran says one thing she’s learned from seeing the messy side of people’s relationships: STDs pop up in every demographic.
In case you are wondering, Halloran says so far no one has asked her to dump their partner for them.
“I don’t do breakups," she says with a laugh.