(Eric Harkleroad/KHN illustration)
Heather Meador and Anna Herber-Downey use dating apps on the job — and their boss knows it.
Both are public health nurses employed by Linn County Public Health in eastern Iowa. They’ve learned that dating apps are the most efficient way to inform users that people they previously met on the sites may have exposed them to sexually transmitted infections.
A nationwide surge in STIs — with reported cases of gonorrhea and syphilis increasing 10% and 7%, respectively, from 2019 to 2020, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — isn’t sparing Iowa. The duo has found that the telephone call, a traditional method of contact tracing, no longer works well.
“When I started 12 years ago, we called everyone,” said Meador, the county health department’s clinical branch supervisor. “It’s getting harder and harder to just call someone on the phone.”
Even texting is ineffective, they said. And people aren’t necessarily answering messages on Facebook. The dating apps are where they’re at.
Because many people are meeting sex partners online — via sites like Grindr or Snapchat, which are headquartered in West Hollywood and Santa Monica, California, respectively — contact tracers often don’t have much information to go on, just a screen name or a picture.
So, about a year ago, Meador and her colleagues got approval from their bosses at the local level to build profiles on the app, through which they can contact the sex partners of infected people.
Traditionally, contact tracers interview people infected with an STI about their recent encounters and then reach out to those partners to tell them about the potential exposure.
Linn County contact tracers use the apps throughout their workday. Grindr, in particular, relies on geolocation, showing users matches who are close by. So the tracers use the apps when they’re out and about, hoping to wander into the same neighborhoods as the person diagnosed with an STI. Sometimes users “tap” the contract tracers to see whether they’re interested — in dating, that is.
When the public health officials spot someone they’re looking for, they send a message asking for a call. It’s a successful method: Herber-Downey estimated they make an initial contact 75% of the time.
Linn County’s decision to move online comes as STI rates rise nationally, funding to fight them falls, and people adopt new technologies to meet people and seek fun. “STIs are increasing way faster than the funding …….