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Santa Maria Sun / News

The following article was posted on September 21st, 2022, in the Santa Maria Sun - Volume 23, Issue 30 [ Submit a Story ]
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [santamariasun.com] - Volume 23, Issue 30

With monkeypox in Santa Barbara County, LGBTQ-plus community members worry a discriminatory history might repeat itself

By BULBUL RAJAGOPAL

Monkeypox cases in California almost doubled within a month, and the Central Coast is ramping up mitigation measures.

According to monkeypox data from the California Department of Public Health, total positive cases climbed from 2,660 on Aug. 18 to 4,453 as of Sep. 13. Monkeypox rates spiked closer home in Santa Barbara County, too. The five reported cases in August jumped to 14, according to the county Public Health Department.


SAFE CELEBRATION
During the Pride festival hosted by the Santa Barbara County chapter of the Pacific Pride Foundation on Aug. 27, local health officials hand out LGBTQ-plus messaging about the impact of monkeypox.
PHOTO COURTESY OF PACIFIC PRIDE FOUNDATION

Kristin Flickinger, the executive director of the county’s chapter of the Pacific Pride Foundation, told the Sun that they have been preparing since July.

“We realized that we needed to take a higher level of leadership around [monkeypox] and vaccinations,” she said. “So we sent out a press advisory, and we started talking to the community about what this disease is, how it spreads, how to protect yourself. Then it was a conversation that shifted to, ‘What about vaccines and what roles do vaccines play in prevention?’”

But Flickinger and her team quickly understood that Pacific Pride’s resources were limited, given that they were a local resource group for the LGBTQ-plus community that didn’t have medical staffing. They felt the need to create awareness within queer communities about monkeypox in the wake of anxiety that had spread about the virus.

That anxiety stemmed from a combination of factors: concern that monkeypox disproportionately affects men who have sex with other men (MSM population), worry that public health departments would be slow to react to a potentially ballooning infection rate, and an unease that general misinformation about the disease could further stigmatize queer people.

So, Pacific Pride pooled its networking sources and called upon groups like the county Public Health Department, Planned Parenthood California Central Coast, neighborhood clinics, Cottage Health clinics, and UC Santa Barbara. This networking resulted in a virtual town hall on Aug. 17 to specifically address the LGBTQ-plus community and their concerns. Flickinger said that the most important takeaway was an understanding of what monkeypox is and who it impacts.

“The LGBTQ-plus community, specifically the community of men who have sex with men, is the first community that’s being impacted but not the only community that will be impacted, and that should be taken very seriously by everybody,” she said. 

Monkeypox is rare and belongs to the same family of virus that causes smallpox. Specifically, monkeypox causes rashes around the groin area and hands, feet, chest, face, or mouth. Other symptoms include respiratory ailments, fever, chills, and swollen lymph nodes. While it is sexually transmissible, it is not classified as a sexually transmitted infection because it can be spread through simpler means, too, like touching objects and fabrics that have been used by someone with monkeypox and through respiratory secretions. 

State Department of Public Health data shows that MSMs are the most vulnerable demographic in terms of infection rates. According to that data, 96.48 percent of infections are from the MSM population. 

Flickinger told the Sun that this disproportionate affliction is a reminder of the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s and 1990s when American health leaders took considerable time before sounding the alarm about the health crisis.

“I’m hearing reports of fear and sometimes hurt in the community because of the history that the LGBTQ-plus community has had with health responses around things like HIV,” she said. “It took a moment for this response to get to the point where vaccines are coming down to the county. That delay feels reminiscent of the time when the government abandoned our community.”

However, Flickinger also credited Santa Barbara County’s health officials for proactively creating LGBTQ-plus messaging that was handed out at the organization’s Pride festival on Aug. 27. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s FAQ page on the virus included a graphic of two men in bed together. While there are risks of subliminal messaging, Flickinger said that graphics like the CDC’s can be impactful in a controlled setting.

“I find that imaging helpful. I believe that it’s on specific documentation for what the LGBTQ-plus [community] needs to know, or specifics around sex or Pride season, which is still ongoing,” she said. “Those documents serve an important purpose because of communities of gay and bi men, and other men who have sex with men, they may not see themselves represented on health documents usually.”

Santa Barbara County hosted two monkeypox vaccine clinics in August with the help of Pacific Pride, and vaccine supply is expected to gradually increase this year.

Currently, the two-dose monkeypox vaccine called JYNNEOS is manufactured by Denmark-based company Bavarian Nordic, and the U.S. has a stockpile of 1,000 doses. Jackie Ruiz, county Public Health’s spokesperson, told the Sun that they received 40 doses from the state in July.  

“This was before intradermal vaccination was authorized by the FDA. To date, Santa Barbara County has been allocated 545 vials of vaccine,” she said. “Much of the vaccine supply has been distributed to local health care providers who have requested it.”

Other leaders also have plans in motion to safeguard the LGBTQ-plus community from being negatively affected by monkeypox misconceptions. 

State Sen. John Laird (D-Santa Cruz), who represents the 17th District, which includes San Luis Obispo County, sits on the Select Committee on Monkeypox with fellow Sens. Scott Weiner (D-San Francisco), Susan Eggman (D-Stockton), Rosilicie Ochoa Bogh (R-Yucaipa), Lena Gonzalez (D-Long Beach), and Richard Pan (D-Sacramento).

“The initial concrete plan was to highlight the absence of good care, the stigma, the lack of education, the lack of adequate vaccines, and any other related issue in a way that we could put pressure to have [medical officials] come around and to have there be a better response,” Laird said.

In 1983, Laird became the first openly gay mayor in the country as Santa Cruz’s top city official. He then became a founding member of the Santa Cruz AIDS Project (SCAP), and vividly remembers being in the thick of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. 

Laird mentioned Vito Russo, who wrote the book The Celluloid Closet about LGBTQ-plus portrayal in movies. During the AIDS crisis, Russo wrote a column called “Why We Fight” to encourage faster treatment plans. In it, Russo quotes a New York Times article.

“I reread it recently. Two, three, four times, the New York Times said, ‘Don’t worry about HIV, it hasn’t reached the general population.’ That was just wrong on two fronts. No. 1: Was everyone then with that view, and monkeypox now, chopped liver politically or culturally?” Laird said. “Second, it didn’t face the real issue: This is about the spread of a particular virus and needs to be stopped.”

Reach Staff Writer Bulbul Rajagopal from Sun’s sister paper, New Times, at brajagopal@newtimesslo.com.










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