In a line that stretched more than a block in downtown Guerneville, hundreds of men anxiously waited to get inoculated last week at Sonoma County’s first monkeypox vaccine clinic.
Though many had been there for hours, the mood was jovial, with groups of friends making jokes and eager to begin celebrating the 26th annual Lazy Bear Week, a popular fundraiser that attracts hundreds of hairy, gay men from across the globe for pool and beach parties, dancing and other social gatherings.
Some cheered after getting jabbed, others cried or became emotional, recalling painful memories of the AIDS and HIV crisis and its disproportionate impact on their community, as well as the discrimination and stigma it wrought.
But for James Juanillo — the first in line to receive a shot — it represented an opportunity for gay and bisexual men to be proactive against the virus, and to be viewed as teachers, not victims.
Juanillo, who owns a cottage in Guerneville and a home in San Francisco’s Pacific Heights neighborhood, lined up seven hours before vaccinations began shortly after 5:30 p.m. Monday.
“All these people waiting in line are being responsible gay men, taking care of their community just by getting vaccinated,” he said. “The gay community is the point of the spear. We’re the most educated community when it comes to pandemics and contagious diseases … they shouldn’t stigmatize us, they should learn from us.”
Health officials tread lightly
On Thursday, the federal government declared the worsening monkeypox outbreak a national health emergency, an action some critics say should have been taken sooner. The Biden administration has also been criticized for a slow rollout of monkeypox vaccine, leaving many unable to get a shot.
On Friday, county health officials issued a “letter to the community” aimed at raising awareness about the monkeypox threat. Local officials said there were now 17 confirmed cases of monkeypox infection among Sonoma County residents, a 180% increase since July 25, when the county reported six confirmed or suspected cases.
Sonoma County Department of Health Services issues letter to community to increase awareness about monkeypox
Officials said the “increase from the county’s numbers last week is suggestive of accelerating spread,” according to a draft copy of the letter to the community.
The letter, signed by Health Services Director Tina Rivera, Public Health Director Gabriel Kaplan, Health Officer Dr. Sundari Mase and Deputy Health Officer Dr. Kismet Baldwin, stressed the importance of supporting those who are currently most impacted by the spread of the monkeypox virus.
“It is critical that public health officials, members of the health care provider community and others in our broader community support members of the LGBTQ community and recognize that they are facing the greatest risks of this disease at this time,” the letter said. “While men who have sex with men currently face the greatest risk, a person’s sexuality and sexual orientation is not the route of transmission. Anyone who has direct contact, especially skin to skin contact, with an infected person can contract the disease.”
With gay men once again in the crosshairs of a global viral outbreak, health officials are trying to tread lightly, delivering public health messages that educate but do not stigmatize. It is a delicate balance that means focusing on the primary mode of transmission (close, personal, often skin-to-skin contact) and the scientific fact that anyone can get it.
Local health officials have acknowledged that the vast majority of monkeypox cases have been among men who have sex with men, but they emphatically point out the outbreak is not limited to gay and bisexual men.
“In California and the United States, there are people who are not men who have sex with men that have been identified as cases, so even though the majority have been, everyone should be alert and vigilant,” said Baldwin, who is in charge of the local monkeypox response.
Both Baldwin and Mase say they do not want broad public health messaging to single out any “particular populations.”
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