By Bob LaMendola
Florida Department of Health in Broward County
BROWARD COUNTY – Disease Intervention Specialists (DIS) at the Florida Department of Health in Broward County spend their days locating people who have tested positive for an STD – or their sex partners – and offering them treatment.
Call them the disease detectives.
Sonya Richards, a former U.S. Army psychological intelligence operator who is now a DIS, went to pick up a girl, 14, to receive treatment, but found the repeat runaway was gone again.
The upset mother had no idea where to find her daughter but Richards remembered the teen previously mentioning a friend and a park where they liked to hang out. Sure enough, she found the girl there and drove her to the clinic.
“I told her that once a week, I would pick her up wherever she desired and take her in for her three weekly injections. That’s an hour-long round trip, but during that traveling time, we talked a lot,” Richards says.
“She was in a gang and she was doing drugs I’ve never heard of in my life. But she was a beautiful and intelligent young lady. She said she had seen how her siblings acted rebelliously and she did the same thing, too. Eventually she agreed to talk about outside counseling. Now the family is in counseling,” Richards says.
Cases like hers are a regular occurrence for the 25-person STD staff. Their efforts have helped DOH-Broward reduce the spread of HIV/AIDS and STDs in the community.
DIS workers are trained to perform STD tests but most of their work is locating clients. They sometimes work at night and on weekends to find those unavailable during business hours. Phone numbers, addresses, family members and official databases typically are enough to locate STD clients. But like good detectives, DIS staff must learn to think creatively when they come up empty.
“I once got a phone number off of a dog collar,” says DIS Katy Anderson. “I did about three field visits and each time, no one was home. There was a dog there each time I could see through the glass door. When it jumped up to bark at me, I got the phone number and surprisingly enough that phone number helped me reach the client.”
DIS staffers learn to make their methods fit the surroundings. They must speak plainly and directly, and dress appropriately. Most important, they must be absolutely vigilant to protect a client’s confidentiality. For instance, when they talk to a minor for the first time, they can’t tell the parents why they are there until they have told the child first.
“The parents may get angry. You have to be polite but firm,” says DIS Gabrielle McKoy. “People look at us in a negative light. I like to view us in a positive light. I’m not always bringing good news but when I bring bad news, I have a solution to bring them. ‘You can get treatment’ ”