Lakshmi Sarah

Producer, Educator & Writer

‘We’re Ringing the Alarm’: Efforts Rise to Ensure Monkeypox Spread Is Taken Seriously

As of July 15, there were at least 86 confirmed cases of monkeypox in San Francisco. The virus spreads through close physical contact, and rates of infection right now are highest among men who have sex with other men. Many have been critical of the federal response to the virus, decrying a lack of vaccines.

The city ran out of monkeypox vaccines last week. On Friday, San Francisco health officials announced they’ll soon get 4,163 vaccines over the next week. Still, that’s far short of the 35,000 doses the city requested of the federal government.

“This will help, but it is not nearly enough and we will keep advocating for adequate supply from our federal partners,” San Francisco Mayor London Breed wrote on Twitter.

That isn’t a guarantee of an increase in vaccine supply in the future. Last week, public health advocates and some officials, including State Sen. Scott Wiener, openly called the lack of monkeypox vaccines a failure.

“We need an enormous amount of additional vaccine doses, and we need it immediately. The federal government’s failures are threatening to deeply harm our community,” Wiener said, in a statement.

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To find out more on monkeypox’s impact on the LGBTQ+ community, KQED’s Holly J. McDede spoke with Tyler TerMeer, CEO of the San Francisco AIDS Foundation, to learn more.

HOLLY J. MCDEDE: You made a point at a digital town hall earlier this week saying we shouldn’t draw a direct correlation between this moment and the start of the AIDS epidemic. Why is that and what are the differences?

TYLER TERMEER: I think the HIV epidemic in its own right has a very important story to tell. My point at the town hall was that while there are certainly very similar moments around the public health failure that existed in both cases, specifically for a group of men who have sex with men in our country, HIV and the public failure that was in the early ’80s and ’90s is one that deserves its own storyline and one where people were dying at rates that are unimaginable and unthinkable at this point in our history. The federal government in that moment was still not acting because it was a politicized issue and highly stigmatized.

Now, decades after the start of the HIV epidemic, a group of individuals, the same group, in this case, cis[gender] and transgender men, as well as nonbinary individuals, are facing a crisis in their community. We have learned so much about how to effectively respond to crises among our community and have learned a lot in the last two years related to the COVID-19 pandemic on vaccine distribution. So, why is it that now when a crisis is impacting this same group of folks, there is a lack of urgency in their response?

Why is that?

Many of us are asking that question. We know that there are vaccines still available at the federal and state level that could be distributed here in San Francisco. We know that there are supply chain issues, but I think we are ringing the alarm in this moment because, one, we don’t want this to be not taken seriously. And at the same time, we’re worried that it is being over-politicized as a LGBTQ issue and that it is being highly stigmatized among the community for those who identify as cis[gender] men or transgender men.

Given the differences and some similarities, can you talk a little bit about whether there are lessons from the AIDS epidemic that the foundation is using in the fight against monkeypox?

From the earliest days of the HIV epidemic, the community itself had to come together to act up and to fight back. We were educating one another. We were calling on one another to ring the alarm of urgency and to place pressure on local, state and federal public health. We’re reliving that experience in this moment.

A bald man with a salt and pepper beard and red sweater holds a microphone whiel standing among a crowd, outside.
Dr. Tyler TerMeer speaks during a rally for housing rights in support of long-time LGBTQ+-rights activist Cleve Jones at Harvey Milk Plaza in San Francisco on March 27, 2022. Jones was facing a rent increase that would more than double the price of his Castro apartment. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

We receive phone calls every day at the foundation on our monkeypox hotline of folks who are fearful of what’s happening, who don’t know where to turn to for access to vaccine, and want to know what they can do to push back and to fight back. Organizations like San Francisco AIDS Foundation and community activists are pulling together to demand that we get vaccines as quickly as possible into our communities and into the hands of trusted community partners so that we can offer this vaccine in a culturally safe and affirming way to all those that need and deserve it.

The AIDS Walk is happening this weekend. Do you expect monkeypox to be front of mind for people who are participating?

I think in any moment where the broader LGBTQ community comes together, we’re educating one another and we’re coming together to fight and advocate for what is most needed for our community. So these moments like the AIDS Walk are an opportunity for community mobilization and for our community to lean into one another through some of the most difficult chapters of our movement.

What is the No. 1 thing you would ask of the federal government when it comes to curbing monkeypox infections here in the Bay Area?

We need access to vaccine, and we need it as quickly as possible. We need a coordinated response across our public health agencies and the community partners that they work with each and every day, in order to not make the mistakes in the past, in terms of equitable distribution of vaccines.

We need to ensure that trusted community partners who have long relationships with communities of color or other communities that have traditionally had very valid reasons for medical mistrust or have not had the same access and opportunity to health care services are front of mind in any vaccine equity conversations, and that we have enough vaccines available in our community that we can offer it not just to those who may have had an exposure, but in a preventative way to anyone who feels like they may be of high risk in our community.

Is there anything else that you wanted to mention?

While we are doing our best to get vaccine out into the community and answer all of the questions and concerns that continue to come into the foundation, we currently have over 3,000 individuals on our waiting list. The city is out of vaccines and we’ve received no updated reports from state or local health on when we might see more vaccine at our clinic in the Castro.

Note: This interview was conducted Friday at noon. At 4:45 p.m. the San Francisco Department of Public Health announced a new delivery of vaccines for monkeypox, though as of publication they are not yet available.

Right now we’re mobilizing to get as many folks as possible to sign on to our petition that will go to the state and federal government asking for more vaccines now [and] for an equitable response to the monkeypox crisis in our community. And to ensure that testing and treatment are available to all those who need it.

I think it’s important to emphasize that anyone can get monkeypox and that we promote it as a public health concern for all.

KQED’s Anaïs-Ophelia Lino and Bay City News contributed to this report. 

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This entry was posted on July 16, 2022 by in KQED and tagged .

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