Community leaders voice concerns about monkeypox at Mazzoni Center press conference

Sultan Shakir, president and executive officer of Mazzoni Center

In response to rising monkeypox cases locally, nationally and globally, Mazzoni Center held a press conference at its Bainbridge Street location on July 29, where LGBTQ+ community leaders, politicians and healthcare providers shared information and answered questions about the virus. As of July 26, 3,591 cases of monkeypox have been reported and confirmed in the U.S., almost 100 of which are in Pennsylvania.

“We’ve seen too many times what can happen when swift actions are not taken in the wake of a global health crisis,” state Rep. Brian Sims said at the press conference. “The World Health Organization has declared monkeypox a public health emergency, and Philadelphia is by no means immune and accounts for half of the cases in the commonwealth.”

Community leaders discussed the limited number of vaccines that have been made available thus far. Philadelphia received 1,605 vaccine doses last week and is set to receive 1,020 additional doses, according to 6ABC

The Philadelphia Department of Public Health announced that at this time, vaccine appointments are available only to those who are considered at high risk of exposure, which is to say gay, bisexual, transgender, non-binary, and other men who are 18 and up who have sex with men or transgender or non-binary people. Other criteria that determine people at high risk of exposure are related to their number of sexual partners in the past 14 days and their believed exposure. People who call the Philadelphia health department seeking a monkeypox vaccine currently encounter a message saying that all available appointments are filled. 

“I want to say unequivocally to the CDC, to the FDA, to the Pennsylvania Department of Health, to the Philadelphia Department of Health: this is a crisis,” state Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta said at the press conference. “We need a vaccine and we need it right now.”

Steven Robertson, medical assistant supervisor at Mazzoni Center, told attendees that Mazzoni medical staff are seeing about three to five patients with monkeypox symptoms per day. Robertson also said that Mazzoni received 100 vaccine doses last week, and used those vaccines to inoculate 80 people who could come into the clinic within 24 hours’ notice. Mazzoni received 150 more doses on Monday, all of which have been administered or allotted. 

“Myself along with other providers are working hand in hand with the Department of Public Health here in Philadelphia to test, treat, and vaccinate as many people as possible, but we need more support immediately,” Robertson said at the press conference. 

Kenyatta and other speakers stressed the importance of a broader approach to testing and vaccination, and emphasized that anyone can get monkeypox regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity. 

“I just want to say there is no such thing as a gay disease, as an LGBTQ disease, as a queer disease,” Kenyatta said at the conference. “The fact that this is how this has been treated so far, is a real prejudice. Monkeypox can impact anyone. But right now it is the LGBTQ community, particularly gay men who are feeling the brunt of this so far. There are certainly some elders here today who know even more intimately and personally than I do what happens when the government doesn’t take this seriously.”

Speakers also discussed the fact that monkeypox is not a sexually transmitted disease, despite being framed as such on some messaging platforms. 

Jazmyn Henderson, organizer with ACT UP Philadelphia and Black and Latinx Community Control of Health, said at the press conference, “this virus is being put out in the media as something that’s only affecting the LGBTQ community, and they’re treating it like an STI. I am a survivor of HIV and I know what that stigma feels like, and how deadly it is to people who look like me. We need to test and treat everybody, vaccinate everybody. This is not a population-specific virus, it’s a human virus.”

She and others emphasized the fact that because testing has been limited to LGBTQ communities, the full scope of monkeypox transmission is unknown. “We don’t know how far reaching this is, and until people stop treating this like it’s a virus that only affects people that look like me, we’re not going to know,” Henderson said.

When it was time for questions, PGN asked the group of leaders what recommendations they would give to people who engage in sex work in terms of limiting their exposure to monkeypox.

After the conference, Tatiana Woodard, community affairs manager at Mazzoni Center, told PGN, “even though I don’t have any medical advice as far as survival sex work and monkeypox goes, I think it’s just very important to let communities know just to be a little bit extra cautious than what they would normally be, when it comes to the skin to skin contact. And also just using protection and putting some type of barrier between them and the person.” 

PGN asked Mazzoni Center staff whether they would consider opening up vaccine criteria to include people who engage in survival sex work, once the organization receives more vaccines. 

Dr. Mark Watkins, Mazzoni Center physician, told PGN, “it is factored into the decision on who gets vaccinated. If we are aware that a patient is a sex worker, they are being vaccinated. We have already vaccinated some patients who fit into this category. One of the categories for vaccination is a person who has had multiple partners in the past two weeks. That would include sex workers.”

Other speakers and leaders present at the press conference include Michael Hinson, longtime activist and CEO of SELF, Inc.; Mazzoni Center staffers Dusty Latimer, physician assistant, and Sultan Shakir, president and executive officer; staff members from Bebashi Transition to Hope including Nackea Bachman, physician’s assistant, and Sebrina Tate, executive director; Jasper Liem, interim executive director of The Attic Youth Center; City Councilmember Mark Squilla and Chris Bartlett, executive director of William Way LGBT Community Center. 

Kenyatta in partnership with Mazzoni Center plans to hold a virtual town hall on Tuesday, Aug. 2 to address community questions about monkeypox.