Rising monkeypox cases alarm LGBTQ activists

There have been almost 2,100 reported cases in the U.S, the CDC says.

July 20, 2022, 8:40 PM

Protesters in several cities across the country are calling on the Biden administration, as well as local officials, to address the rapid rise in monkeypox cases.

Demonstrators, including many LGBTQ activists, say officials have yet to provide the necessary outreach to vulnerable populations as issues continue to plague the vaccine rollout.

A protest is being planned for Thursday by several organizations in New York City, the epicenter of the U.S. outbreak.

Nearly 60% of those diagnosed with monkeypox in New York City have self-identified as members of the LGBTQ community, according to the New York City Department of Health.

The city has seen more than 600 cases so far, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. As of July 20, there have been over 2,100 confirmed cases in the U.S. with numbers quickly rising, the CDC says.

Federal and state agencies have been scrambling to supply enough vaccines and treatments for monkeypox as demand grows by the tens of thousands. New York ABC station WABC reported that the vaccine scheduling website crashed this week when New Yorkers attempted to grab the limited appointments available and the initial requirements for vaccine eligibility excluded trans and nonbinary people.

LGBTQ groups have been on high alert regarding the rapid spread of cases, saying that the messaging around the circumstances of infection has not been adequately communicated to at-risk communities.

California State Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon talks during a news conference at Out Here Sexual Health Center in the Baldwin Hills section of Los Angeles, July 20, 2022.
Richard Vogel/AP

Some activists have compared the monkeypox outbreak to the HIV/AIDS epidemic.

They say shame and stigma have stifled efforts concerning the illness, worsening the epidemic, and say governments have done the same with monkeypox.

“The stark and clear parallels are the lack of investment and the negligence,” said Jason Rosenberg, an activist at ACT UP NY. “We saw little to no investment when we saw the few outbreaks that were happening in May. AIDS activists told the federal government back in May that we need to act on this, we need quicker investment in our stockpile of monkeypox vaccines. And time and time again, they refused that call to action.”

Activists say monkeypox has been painted as an illness that is only of concern to the LGBTQ community, though it can affect and infect anyone.

“We're now in the situation where we're already seeing straight folks presenting to their doctors or health departments with clear symptoms of monkeypox, and they're being denied testing or care because it's ‘a gay issue,’” said Caleb LoSchiavo, an activist and PhD candidate at Rutgers School of Public Health.

Vaccines are only available to gay or bisexual men and trans or nonbinary people over the age of 18. However, anyone can contract the illness.

“We've seen some really homophobic and some really bad language that's happening online,” Rosenberg said. “So if this is happening now, what's it going to look like days from now, weeks for now?”

At a press conference Wednesday, New York Health Commissioner Dr. Mary T. Bassett said, “We do not at this time have vaccines to provide vaccination to everybody who wants or needs a vaccine. We continue to advocate for more vaccines from the federal government and in this, we have the active support of our Governor.”

She continued, “Our eligibility criteria continue to be based on people at highest risk of exposure or people who have been exposed to monkeypox.”

On testing, Bassett said health providers have to wait for a rash to appear in order to make a definitive diagnosis on whether someone has monkeypox.

The CDC says monkeypox can spread, among other ways, through through direct contact with an infectious rash, scab or bodily fluids or via respiratory secretions during prolonged face-to-face contact or intimate physical contact.

“We just had a gigantic pandemic, where we had vaccine appointments being released and huge demand for these vaccines and so we should have expected and use the existing infrastructure that we have for that," Bassett said.

Groups, including HIV/AIDs awareness and advocacy organizations Housing Works and ACT UP NY, said they have a list of requests for both state and federal governments.

"There is a shame involved in this," said Mordechai Levovitz, an organizer of the Thursday protest and clinical director of LGBTQ Jewish youth group JQY. "There is a taboo. This is something that, for people who had [rashes and lesions] on their face, something that they can't hide."

On the state level, the group is demanding an expansion of vaccine appointment availability; meaningful community outreach; a stockpile of vaccines; a safety net fund for people who test positive and have to take off of work; as well as providing hotel rooms for quarantining.

On the federal level, protestors are calling for large-scale information campaigns about monkeypox testing from the CDC, and free and accessible testing for un- and underinsured individuals, as well as for the government to provide a demographic breakdown of infected populations.

"The federal government must invest in communication about monkeypox testing, treatment, and vaccine availability now," according to a statement from Act Up NY.

It continued, "We need meaningful outreach to all communities including vulnerable populations, streamlined communication efforts, mass testing implementation, expedited FDA approval of TPOXX (MPX treatment), and a public plan for the US government to take action on the Bavarian Nordic stockpile (15.2 million vaccines)."

New York Department of Health officials said they are working with advocates and activists on outreach efforts.

"We’ve been developing clinical guidance, expanding test capacity – initially from our public health labs, and now to commercial labs – partnering with the federal government, as the Governor has said, and revitalizing our network of local health departments," said Bassett.

She continued, "We’re doing all of this with real attention to the importance of dignity and respect, without stigma, and with equity always at the center of our work.”

The CDC did not immediately respond to ABC News' requests for comment.

Protests have also taken place in San Francisco where cases are rising. The San Francisco Department of Public Health reported 55 monkeypox cases on July 19 alone, bringing the total number of cases in the city to 141.

People wait in line to recieve the Monkeypox vaccine before the opening of a new mass vaccination site at the Bushwick Education Campus in Brooklyn on July 17, 2022.
Kena Betancur/AFP via Getty Images

LGBTQ groups have been on high alert regarding the rapid spread of cases, saying that the messaging around the circumstances of infection has not been adequately communicated to at-risk communities.

Though demographic data is not yet available for cases across the U.S., nearly 60% of people infected in New York City self-reported as members of the LGBTQIA+ community, though demographic data on sexual orientation was unavailable for 39.6% of the cases. Two individuals — 0.6% of cases — reported that they identify as straight.

At least 34% of those infected in Europe identified as gay or bisexual, according to the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control.

However, the sexual orientation of 65% of the infected people is unknown or missing in the data, the European agency said.

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