This commentary is from Jacob Budin, a member of the LGBTQ community and Waterbury resident.
A new virus is raging at Vermont’s border gates. Nearly 3,500 confirmed cases of monkeypox – a virus similar to smallpox – have been confirmed in the United States, including all neighboring states.
Symptoms of monkeypox include fever, headache, muscle aches, and an extremely painful rash. In rare cases, it is fatal. Although it does not spread as easily as Covid-19, direct contact with an infected person, or indirectly through their clothing or bedding, can transmit the virus.
Although the outbreak caught the global community off guard, the good news is that there is a safe and effective vaccine. The federal government has over a million doses in its possession. Some of those doses have already been assigned to the state of Vermont, and some of them are sitting in state facilities, in medical freezers, waiting to be administered.
The bad news is that while monkeypox continues to spread unabated, with cases increasing daily, the Vermont Department of Health has no plans to vaccinate its high-risk residents. Where neighboring states have taken strong measures to contain the virus, including education and vaccination, Vermont has instead implemented a 1-800 number that medical providers can call. State strategy is a hotline.
Across the border in New York, pop-up clinics have sprung up ad hoc, targeting at-risk communities and vaccinating thousands of people. Meanwhile, in Massachusetts, health officials have set up a dozen vaccination sites with relatively broad eligibility criteria and a public commitment to expand distribution.
The CDC guidelines themselves are unambiguous: they recommend vaccination of people who are at higher risk of being exposed to monkeypox.
What I haven’t said so far is that the monkeypox epidemic right now is massively affecting gay men. When I wrote to the Vermont Department of Health asking what their strategy was, I asked the question bluntly: How many gay people have to get seriously ill for you to start vaccinating people?
Public health authorities – from the HIV/AIDS epidemic to the present day – have had a delicate and suspicious relationship with the LGBTQ community. Today, officials have the opportunity to do the right thing, regardless of their sexual orientation, by distributing and providing vaccines to people at high risk. Pushed into the arms of the most vulnerable, vaccinations reduce community spread and reduce risk for everyone.
Moreover, a vaccine that sits in a freezer does no one any good. The only reason I can think of for them to resist a targeted vaccination campaign is because they believe that if they wait a little longer, a friendlier group (i.e. say not gay men) will eventually ask.
The state says it doesn’t have many vaccine doses. It is undoubtedly true. But some doses are better than none. The greatest public health impact can be achieved by vaccinating now. Refusing to distribute the vaccine suggests that some people, those who need it most today, do not deserve it.
The status quo is untenable. We are waiting to see who will fall ill and in doing so not only risk the lives of residents, but also risk stigmatizing another generation of gay people by letting a new pandemic run wild unchecked.
Vermont must begin vaccinating those at high risk immediately.