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New push to address gonorrhea

A state grant aimed at helping modernize public health services will install video conferencing capabilities in 14 eastern Oregon counties, and hire three staffers to address significantly increasing gonorrhea rates.

The $495,000 regional grant is being managed by the North Central Public Health District, which is acting as fiscal agent and will also be the employer of the three new staffers, said Teri Thalhofer, director of the health district.

Gonorrhea, a sexually transmitted infection, is a common disease that is symptomless in some who are infected. Symptoms can include painful urination and discharge. It is easily treatable with antibiotics — though there is starting to be some antibiotic-resistant strains of gonorrhea — but if left unchecked, it can lead to infertility, and long-term health problems in babies born to infected mothers.

Incidences of the disease have skyrocketed in some eastern Oregon counties. Morrow County went from one case in 2012 to 19 in 2016, an 1,800 percent increase.

Wasco County had three in 2012 and 12 in 2016, a 300 percent increase. Umatilla County saw four in 2012 and 88 in 2016, a nearly 2,000 percent increase. Malheur County went from five to 29 in that period. Smaller counties like Sherman and Wheeler did not report due to small numbers of cases and/or small populations.

“The state is facing an epidemic and eastern Oregon may be experiencing even greater increases in disease incidence overall,” the health district wrote in its grant application. “Counties with limited resources are less prepared to face these increases than counties in other parts of the state.”

Thalhofer said gonorrhea is detected with a simple urine test, for both men and women, and a major part of lowering infection rates is reaching out and treating intimate partners of infected people.

The key to that is getting patients to share who their partners are, a step that requires training in how to approach the matter.

“Mostly it has to do with, how do we take the shame away from it and how do we help people be willing to show who their partners are so we can treat the contacts so we can really halt the disease process,” Thalhofer said.

Thalhofer said the grant-funded employees, funded through June 2019, will first work on a health quality assessment for the region and they’ll be looking at data and creating a specific work plan and communication to address gonorrhea in the region.

The three new staff will also be able to help respond to other types of outbreaks throughout eastern Oregon.

Currently, health districts have to stop all other work when they have an outbreak to respond to, she said.

The grant money is part of Oregon’s efforts to work on health system transformation, a process that has already produced coordinated care organizations (CCOs) around the state.

The state also realized the public health system needed modernization, appointing a task force to determine what every Oregonian should have access to in governmental public health.

The task force worked on what those services and capabilities would be, and assessed the associated costs. The cost was estimated at $100 million a year from the state’s general fund.

In the last legislative session, lawmakers agreed to set aside $5 million to award in grants.

“That’s the largest investment that the state legislature has made in public health in many, many years,” Thalhofer said.

Since it wasn’t enough for every local health authority to receive money under the funding formula created, they had to partner with other entities.

The health district here partnered with the Eastern Oregon CCO and the Columbia Gorge CCO, which includes Hood River and Wasco counties.

The health district got the grant money in December, and Thalhofer hopes to post the job descriptions any day now. She hopes to have the posts filled by February.

The team will include an epidemiologist, a position requiring a master’s degree in biostatistics; a disease investigation specialist, which could be a nurse or someone with a bachelor’s degree in public health; and a communication specialist, who must have a bachelor’s degree and related experience, with a knowledge of health and working in diverse populations.


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