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Odd Job: The woman who calls, out-of-the-blue, to say “You might have an STD”

It’s been quite a while since most of us have sat, sweaty palmed, through a sex ed class. But Washington state’s public health departments continue to educate adults on sexual health. And there’s one job in the STD Clinic that’s particularly interesting.

“Hi, this is Michelle. I’m calling from King County Public Health. Do you have a second to talk?” says Michelle Perry is a King County Public Health Disease Investigator as she makes a call.

“The reason I’m calling is because you may have been exposed to gonorrhea. I wanted you to have this information and I want to offer you testing. Are you available to come into the clinic today?”

When someone tests positive for an STD, Public Health will actually contact any of their past or present partners to let them know that they’ve been exposed.

“We’ll call as many partners as you want us to call.”

Even though a nurse or doctor will urge a patient to tell their partners themselves, the reality is they usually won’t.

“It’s really hard for people to talk about. You know, it’s really easy for me to talk about because I talk to people about it all day long, everyday,” Perry says. “You take some of the personal connection out of it when I’m letting people know. Plus, I have the resources to help people get tested right away and treated right away. Whereas other people are like, ‘I don’t know what you’re going to do but you’ve been exposed.'”

The calls she makes are completely anonymous. Michelle won’t name any names, dates, cities.

“I’m a broken record: ‘It’s just someone who cares about you that just wants you to know this information.’ I say that over and over again.”

As you might expect, people aren’t always so happy to get the call.

“Absolutely I’ve been yelled at. Mostly just, ‘How did you get my number?’ and ‘Why are you calling me here?’ Those kinds of things. But I try to just keep talking to people until they calm down and come in and get tested and then I try and turn it into something positive.”

Michelle says 90 percent of the time she gets the person on the phone to make an appointment, and they follow through with treatment, so the calls really are stopping the spread of diseases.

“It’s unusual but it also can be fun. I mean, I get to educate people every day and truthfully, a lot of times, people will thank me for calling and giving them the information and offering the services we offer. They’re very grateful for what we do here at Public Health.”

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