They're like health department detectives, tracking down people who may have been exposed to a sexually transmitted disease.
Their job is to try to get people in to be tested and treated to stop the spread of STDs — HIV, gonorrhea, chlamydia and syphilis — that most people don't even want to talk about, let alone have.
When a case occurs like that of a sergeant at McConnell Air Force Base recently accused of having unprotected sex without disclosing his HIV-positive status, disease intervention specialists for the Sedgwick County Health Department go to work making phone calls and trying to reach people who may have been affected.
Their work is confidential, Jason Ybarra, the county's senior disease intervention specialist, stressed, and their goal is not to point fingers or judge but to help protect the community.
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Tech. Sgt. David Gutierrez faces a hearing today in military court similar to a civilian grand jury. Military officials have charged him with 11 counts of aggravated assault, accusing him of having unprotected sexual relations without disclosing his HIV status. He also is accused of violating an order from his squadron commander to tell partners about his disease and to practice safe sex; committing indecent acts on multiple occasions; adultery; and obstructing justice.
Gutierrez, who is assigned to the 22nd Maintenance Operations Squadron at McConnell, attended swinger parties where promiscuous sex is commonplace and used adult websites to find partners, according to documents that were briefly available on the U.S. District Court's website and were published on TheSmokingGun.com.
His military lawyers have not commented on the case.
Health officials are encouraging anyone who might be at risk to be tested for HIV and other STDs.
"We are definitely working on getting folks taken care of," Ybarra said. "We're contacting people to get them tested."
Health officials would not say how many people they are trying to contact in connection with the case. Gutierrez is charged with having unprotected sexual relations with 11 people without disclosing his HIV status. According to documents, he attended 21 swinger parties.
The health department is working with McConnell "to make sure the case is handled properly," health department director Claudia Blackburn said.
Risks and challenges
The case highlights the risks people take finding sexual partners online without knowing anything about them.
At the same time, Blackburn notes that people can put themselves at the same risk with one-night stands or going from one short-term relationship to another.
However, Ybarra said the popularity of adult websites mean "people can get online and meet somebody in a different state or city and can be in one place one day and a different city the next. You don't know what you're taking and bringing back."
The use of the Internet to meet sexual partners presents a challenge to the health department.
"Tracing back an infection is difficult when you don't have a real name, just a username on a website," Ybarra said.
The same is true if a patient only knows the first name of someone he or she met at a bar.
"We go where those investigations take us," Ybarra said.
If the health department sees a connection to a certain location "we will offer testing at those locations."
Intervention specialists ask patients if they want to contact their sexual partners to be tested or if they want the health department to contact them.
"Most of the time, the patient says 'You can go ahead and contact them,' " Ybarra said.
Education and accountability
The Kansas Department of Health and Environment contracts with community-based groups to interact with people in adult chat rooms online and educate them about STDs, said Sandra Springer, HIV and AIDS program director.
"I think we have started to see an increase of individuals having met partners through the Internet as a medium. That's fair to say," Springer said.
Swinger parties, she said, occur across the state, in large cities such as Wichita and in small rural communities.
"I worked in the Kansas City area where they were very, very common," she said.
She said reducing one's risk is about "being accountable and pro-active about your own health and using condoms in every instance. Get to know your partners, and always use protection, regardless of where you're meeting them, whether a bar, bookstore or adult website."