Monkeypox vaccine shortage has Philadelphia’s LGBTQ leaders worried about backlash

The monkeypox scare has the phones ringing at local health clinics treating members of the LGBTQ community as the disease, recently declared a global health emergency, spreads rapidly in Philadelphia.

Many local clinics are turning away callers seeking the vaccine, including some exposed to the disease, for lack of doses.

» READ MORE: Are you at risk of contracting monkeypox? Here’s everything you need to know.

State Representative Malcolm Kenyatta underscored that frustration Friday at a news event to discuss the public health response to monkeypox at the Mazzoni Center, the city’s largest LGBTQ health agency.

Standing at the podium, he put his phone on speaker and dialed the number — 215-685-5488 — posted by the Philadelphia Department of Public Health for those who had been exposed to seek vaccination.

Please note that at this time all available times for monkeypox vaccination are taken. If you have been in close contact with someone with monkeypox, please stay connected to contact tracingsaid the voice on an automated message.

He hung up, leaving about a dozen leaders of community and health LGBTQ organizations tensely silent behind him.

Kenyatta, who identifies as gay, said people who were exposed or wanted to keep loved ones safe only called every day to hear this message repeated.

“There is no vaccine. That there are no appointments,” he said.

Health workers describe being unable to care for patients because they do not have access to vaccines.

Nakea Bachman is a physician assistant at Bebashi Transition to Hope, a nonprofit health organization working with people of color living with HIV/AIDS. Although he works with a population that is immunocompromised and at high risk for long-term illness, Bachmann said he has no monkeypox vaccines to offer.

One patient started crying yesterday when Bachmann instructed them to quarantine for up to four weeks.

“They just broke down,” she recalls, noting that the patient worried about how they could afford to miss work. “This could have been prevented if they had the vaccine.”

There is not enough vaccine available to respond to an epidemic spreading faster nationally in communities of color than among the white population. Philadelphia has a growing need and insufficient supply, city health officials said.

Monkeypox is primarily spread by direct contact with the lesions or rashes of infected people. Although not transmitted through sex itself, transmission in the current outbreak appears to involve close contact, such as intimate touching. Last week, the World Health Organization declared a global health emergency over the outbreak, which has so far spread mostly among men who have sex with men.

Federal officials told reporters Thursday that more than half of the 4,600 cases analyzed nationwide involved people of color — 31 percent of reported cases involved people who identified as Hispanic or Latino, and 27 percent involved people who were black.

» READ MORE: Philly’s LGBTQ network rushes to offer monkeypox information and services amid slow public health response

In all, the CDC has reported nearly 5,000 cases. Those numbers are likely lower, including in Philadelphia, where health officials reported 67 cases on Friday — an increase of 17 cases since Monday.

Three to five patients present with monkeypox symptoms each day at the Mazzoni center, said Steven Robertson, the center’s medical assistant superintendent.

The city said it has provided 700 doses of vaccines to LGBTQ-affiliated health clinics, including Mazzoni’s, but Robertson said that whenever the vaccines arrive, the vast majority are administered or distributed within 24 hours. He said the supply is not enough to meet the city’s growing needs, let alone the safety of health care workers.

“We as health care providers engage with patients who test positive and are not offered vaccination to protect us,” Robertson said.

» READ MORE: Monkeypox vaccine offering in Philadelphia gets big boost, allowing more people to get vaccinated

Philadelphia health officials said Friday that the situation is unlikely to change soon. So far, Philadelphia has received 2,625 vaccines doses that are provided by the federal government.

The city awaits to received an additional 6,020 doses in October or November — enough to vaccinate more than 8,600 people under its distribution plan.

“The Department of Health fully recognizes that even this number is not sufficient,” spokesman James Garrow said in an email.

The city is expanding supplies by taking a different approach to vaccination than recommended by the CDC, whose guidelines call for two doses. The first dose provides protection and the second dose maintains long-term immunity.

The city plans to offer just one dose for now to protect more people.

To prevent disease after exposure, the vaccine is most effective in the first four days after infection, although it can still offer protection for the first two weeks if a person does not develop symptoms.

San Francisco and New York state, two of the areas hardest hit by monkeypox in the US, declared public health emergencies on Thursday. Supporters there said it would help expand testing and vaccines and send a message to the federal government to take decisive action.

But Philadelphia City Council member Mark Scylla said at the local event Friday that the decision should be left to scientific experts.

In the challenges of rolling out monkeypox tests and vaccines, others saw echoes of the early days of COVID-19.

So far, public outcry over the response has come mostly from LGBTQ leaders and organizations, further frustrating some in the community who remember how, in the early days of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, the virus was labeled a “gay disease.”

“I’m an HIV survivor and I know what that stigma feels like and how deadly it is,” said Jazmin Henderson, an activist with ACT-UP Philadelphia, which advocates for people living with HIV/AIDS. “We need to test, treat everyone. Vaccinate everyone. This is not a population-specific virus. It’s a human virus.

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