When the monkeypox outbreak started in New York City in late May, GMHC quickly saw the urgent need for a proactive response, drawing on our 40 years of experience combatting the HIV and AIDS epidemic.
“GMHC has been here before, first with HIV and AIDS, and more recently with meningitis and COVID-19,” said our board chair, Jon Mallow. “With this new monkeypox outbreak, we will continue to lead advocacy and education efforts, provide clear information to our communities about how to mitigate risk and take care of each other—and push for equitable distribution of vaccines and treatment to all.”
Stigma was an immediate concern, as the virus has predominantly spread among gay and bisexual men, and men who have sex with men. Mindful of the early reaction to the HIV virus and AIDS, we issued a statement on May 27—when there were only 10 reported U.S. cases and just one in New York State—calling on the media to provide accurate, scientific information that doesn’t stigmatize gay and bisexual men.
“Just like HIV, exposure to monkeypox is based on what people do, not who they are,” it begins. “For 40 years, GMHC has witnessed and fought against the stigmatization of gay and bisexual men as disease carriers for HIV, meningitis, and now monkeypox. The language used by the media reporting on monkeypox needs to be rooted in science, not stigma,” we urged.
We quickly posted a Monkeypox Update page on our website and started a social media campaign to educate our community about the virus, sharing vaccine availability for people in NYC, along with prevention and safer sex information from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and New York City and State’s public health departments.
Our response has evolved rapidly since then, combining community outreach, education, mutual aid and advocacy.
Equitable Vaccine Allocation
Pushing for a more equitable vaccine allocation for NYC has been a major part of our advocacy and media outreach. As the monkeypox virus has spread, it is disproportionately affecting Black and Latinx people, here in NYC and nationally, as we have already seen happen with the HIV and COVID-19 pandemics.
Latinx people now make up the highest percentage of NYC cases at 30.8%, followed by white people at 25.6% and Black people at 25.4%, as of Aug. 18, according to NYC Health Department data. (Of the rest, 13.4% are of unknown ethnicity with 3.4% Asian or Pacific Islander.)
While thousands of gay and bisexual men in NYC are eagerly trying to get vaccinated, the JYNNEOS vaccine has been in short supply since the outbreak started in May, due to the federal government’s delayed response. New York City has faced a particularly acute vaccine shortage, even though it is an epicenter.
As of July 11, when there were only 865 confirmed U.S. monkeypox cases, fully 25.8% were in NYC—the highest proportion of any state or city. Even so, NYC was allocated less than 11% of the initial 56,000 vaccine doses made available nationally.
In just over a month, the NYC case count jumped from 223 confirmed infections on July 11 to 2,548 cases on Aug. 18, according to NYC Health Department data. That accounts for 18% of the 14,115 cases nationally, according to CDC data.
Connecting to Vaccines
The GMHC Testing Center partnered with the NYC Health Department in late July to help clients and community members with appointment navigation for the first dose of the monkeypox vaccine, which is currently available only for men who have sex with men, transgender or gender non-conforming people who are over age 18 and have had multiple or anonymous sex partners in the last 14 days.
One of our Testing Center coordinators, Zephyr Merkur Herrera, has so far procured over 500 vaccine appointments for our clients and community members.
One client who called to express thanks said they’d heard GMHC’s vice president for communications and policy, Jason Cianciotto, in an NPR interview. He was “clear and informative,” the client said, so they called him. Cianciotto forwarded the call to Merkur Herrera, who was able to quickly help him.
That kind of teamwork is what we do.
Community Outreach & Education
As part of our community outreach, Cianciotto has given dozens of media interviews since June, calling for more monkeypox vaccine doses and educating the public about stigma and prevention.
He shared GMHC’s approach to public health education with NPR’s Weekend Edition: “One of the most important lessons is that we need to have a sex-positive approach to educating people. We are not going to end HIV, and we’re certainly not going to curtail the monkeypox epidemic by trying to shame people into not having sex or only having certain types of sex with certain people,” Cianciotto told NPR.
“When you equip people with the information they need to make healthy choices for themselves and for their community, and when you help them approach those decisions with self-love and acceptance, it’s amazing what the community is able to achieve,” he said.
To educate the public and advocate for more vaccines for NYC, Cianciotto has done interviews with other national news outlets like CNN, NBC News NOW, CNET, and The Guardian US, as well as The New York Times, CBS News New York, and NY1.
Meanwhile, GMHC has been continually updating our monkeypox info page with the latest public health information about vaccines, prevention and treatment, as well as helpful news stories, explainer videos, scientific articles, and policy briefs.
It’s quickly become the most visited page on our website after our homepage.
GMHC is meeting regularly with our local elected officials, such as NYC Council Members Erik Bottcher and Lynn Schulman, and top officials at New York City and state public health agencies to advocate for more vaccines, equitable access, and to stay abreast of the latest public health developments.
In coalition with other NYC community-based organizations serving the LGBTQ community, we sent a letter on July 12 to the Secretary of Health and Human Services Xavier Becerra and CDC Director Rochelle Walensky, calling for NYC’s fair share of vaccine distribution and public health education materials to reach the men who have sex with men who are at the greatest risk of infection.
The other coalition members are: APICHA Community Health Center, Callen-Lorde, Harlem United, Latino Commission on AIDS, and Translatinx Network.
We followed up on Aug. 3 with another letter to HHS and the CDC, renewing our call for equitable vaccine allocation to NYC. “We are very concerned that the time to contain this outbreak in NYC, the nation’s epicenter, may have already passed,” we warned.
Our coalition also asked the White House to declare monkeypox a public health emergency, which it did on Aug. 4.
We’ll continue urging the White House to require the FDA to grant emergency use authorization for TPOXX, a treatment medication that can alleviate the severity of symptoms, and to provide more equitable access to TPOXX for low-income communities of color, including immigrants.
We’re also asking that the WHO rename the virus “MPV” or something similar, following the lead of NYC Health Commissioner Dr. Ashwin Asan, to reduce the stigma and harm the name’s history can cause to people of color and LGBTQ communities.
GMHC knows the power of a united response to public health crises that affect our community. We’ll continue leading the way to educate and advocate for vaccines and treatment in response to the monkeypox outbreak, as we started doing 40 years ago with HIV and AIDS.