Friday, September 30

LGBTQ+ advocates say Ohio’s public health response to the monkeypox outbreak is too slow

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An audio version of this piece was produced by Ideastream Public Media.

The growing monkeypox outbreak, which disproportionately affects gay men, initially arrived in Ohio at the end of June, health officials say. Now advocates for Ohio’s LGBTQ+ community are criticizing Ohio’s response and point to a lack of outreach they say has left many — especially those in the community who are at the greatest risk of infection — without the information they need to protect themselves.

On Thursday, the Ohio Department of Health released a Monkeypox Dashboard, which features an interactive map detailing where cases are being reported across the state.

But some local residents feel they have been left in the dark.

Cleveland resident Shamus Dickinson, who is gay, said he has not heard a “damn thing” about monkeypox.

“I don’t know enough about it to say anything intelligent,” he said. “I hear and see social media stories and maybe a news story, but I know don’t know about it. I don’t know.”

Other advocates say Dickinson’s experience is not unique.

The Ohio Department of Health’s (ODH) response has lagged from the start, said Kenyon Farrow, a public health journalist and board member at the LGBT Community Center of Greater Cleveland. The state sent out a press release on June 13 after Ohio’s first case, but then waited six weeks to post information on their website about monkeypox, Farrow said.

That information did not come in the form of a press release, which Farrow said would have triggered media coverage.

“If you don’t actually alert the public that that’s what you’ve done, then that is relatively meaningless,” he said.

Meanwhile, the virus continues to spread. What started out as four cases in the U.S. on May 31, now stands at more than 17,000 cases across the country.  147 are currently reported in Ohio. 69 of those cases are in Cuyahoga County, and 33 are in Franklin County.

The majority of the Cleveland cases were transmitted in the context of sex and have affected gay men, said Dr. David Margolius, director of Cleveland’s Health Department.

Monkeypox is rarely fatal but it can cause a painful rash and flu-like symptoms. It is not a sexually transmitted disease but since it is spread by close contact – it is often spread between intimate partners.

In Cleveland, 97% of cases have been among gay men, Dr. Margolius said.

“That is the sexual network that monkeypox is traveling right now,” he said. “Of course, it can jump to any network in the future, but we’re going to focus our prevention efforts in that community because there are so few vaccines.”

Cuyahoga County received some 1,200 doses from ODH out of 5,000 doses distributed statewide in early August. Dr. Bruce Vanderhoff, Ohio’s director of public health, said more vaccines are on the way during Aug. 11 news conference.

Despite those assurances, some in the LGBTQ+ communities call the government’s response woefully inadequate and proof of bias against gay people.

“This is rank homophobia,” Farrow said. “This outbreak in the United States at this point has primarily impacted gay and bisexual and queer-identified men. There’s no political appetite because don’t really care about us as a constituency.”

As further evidence of bias, Farrow pointed to a series of bills moving through the Ohio legislature that he suggested will make it more difficult for LGBTQ+ people to access gender-affirming care, participate in athletics and learn about LGBTQ+ issues in schools.

Others say the Ohio government’s response to monkeypox brings back memories of the stigma, lack of information and government silence that enabled the HIV/AIDS epidemic to decimate the LGBTQ+ community in the 80s and 90s.

The only way for the government to combat the impression of bias is with action, said state Sen. Nickie Antonio, a Lakewood Democrat who is the only out LGBTQ+ state legislator in Ohio.

“Prove to me that that’s not true. Show me. Show me some action. Show me dedication and determination to turn this around,” she said. “Then, by your actions, we will believe that this is not about stigma or just not moving fast enough because there is bigotry towards the LGBTQ community.”

Antonio sent a public letter to ODH, on Aug. 3, asking them to accelerate a roll-out of the vaccines and educational campaigns, explaining the risks of monkeypox. Dr. Vanderhoff has blamed the delay on a national vaccine shortage and not a failure to prioritize the health of members of the LGBTQ+ community, Antonio said.

ODH declined to be interviewed for this story.

Dr. Margolius, of the Cleveland health department, said the lag in response time is a legitimate concern, but that some of it came out of concern for the LGBTQ+ community.

“When the [World Health Organization] decided to declare a public emergency, the folks in that committee who dissented, who disagreed with declaring it a public health emergency, said that in part they disagreed because they worried about further stigmatizing the gay community,” he said.

In the meantime, some members of the gay community are trying to combat fear by seeking information, said Dwayne Steward, interim chief people and culture officer of Equitas Health, a Columbus-based LGBTQ+ healthcare provider.

At the beginning of August, Equitas offered a pop-up monkeypox vaccine clinic.

“When we released the information, appointments filled up within minutes and that just really just shows me the need,” said Steward. “The community is dealing with a lot of fear right now, which is being propagated by stigma. A lot of people are really looking for the help.” 🔥

(Colossal editing support provided by Stephanie Czekalinski.)

Ignite Action:

  • For more information on the Monkeypox virus, including information on symptoms and vaccines, visit the Ohio Department of Health.

About Author

Ken Schneck is the Editor of The Buckeye Flame. He received the 2021 Sarah Pettit Memorial Award for the LGBTQ Journalist of the Year from the NLGJA: The Association of LGBTQ Journalists. He is the author of "Seriously, What Am I Doing Here? The Adventures of a Wondering and Wandering Gay Jew" (2017), "LGBTQ Cleveland" (2018), "LGBTQ Columbus" (2019), and "LGBTQ Cincinnati" (2020). In his spare time, he is a professor of education at Baldwin Wallace University.

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