As monkeypox, or MPV, continues to spread primarily among gay, bi, and queer men and men who have sex with men, local communities are implementing a new Biden administration pilot program to get MPV vaccines into at-risk peoples' arms at large gatherings.
This weekend, the Mecklenburg Health Department was the first to roll out the new program as more than 275,000 people attended events during Charlotte Pride, and while many said information about the vaccine availability was lacking, officials are satisfied with the results.
During a press conference on Tuesday afternoon, Mecklenburg County Health Department director Dr. Raynard Washington spoke to reporters about what he considered a successful rollout.
"This weekend, our team vaccinated roughly 540 individuals who met the current high-risk eligibility criteria here in North Carolina, bringing our total administered here in Mecklenburg County to 3300."
He added that he was proud of his "team's efforts this weekend to reach the most at-risk residents by simply meeting people where they are."
In addition to vaccines, the county provided education and information at the festival on Saturday and Sunday, Paige Bennett, deputy director of Mecklenburg County Public Health, told The Advocate in a statement. Staff also offered the vaccine at outreach events at night through community partners.
The Advocate learned that there was no signage for MPV vaccine information at Charlotte Pride. Several people reported wanting to find MPV vaccine information but failing to find any.
Raynard said that it was important not to stigmatize people wanting to get vaccinated, and for that reason, no signs were at the festival.
Bennett laid out the department's efforts at meeting health equity challenges.
"MCPH worked diligently to ensure those most at-risk for monkeypox infection were offered access to the vaccine," she said. "After noting the divergence in demographics of monkeypox confirmed cases and vaccine uptake, MCPH accelerated additional equity-focused activities to reach the Black [men who have sex with men] community in partnership with a number of key LGBTQ+ serving community partners and advocacy organizations."
Bennett adds, "We have several additional outreach, education, and vaccination activities planned for the coming weeks."
Director of operations and communications for Charlotte Pride Matt Comer said in a statement that the organization worked to amplify public health messaging on MPV through its website, event mobile app, emails, and social media.
"Charlotte Pride learned of the White House’s increase in vaccine supply on Wednesday, Aug. 17," Comer said. "We were able to immediately communicate with Mecklenburg Public Health and update our website and mobile app to note the availability of vaccines. We’re grateful for Mecklenburg Public Health’s steadfast and unwavering commitment to the health and wellness of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County residents."
He added, "We're grateful for the White House's efforts to increase vaccine supply across the country and we look forward to continued action to keep LGBTQ people safe and healthy."
To the north, James Millner, the director of Virginia Pride, is preparing for Richmond's PrideFest 2022. The event, to be held on Brown's Island near the city's downtown, promises to draw tens of thousands.
Millner tells The Advocate that his organization is ready to meet the challenge.
"Virginia Pride is committed to working with VDH, HHS, and our community health partners in any way we can to ensure our community has access to information and vaccines before, during, and after Pridefest," Millner said.
Richmond and Henrico Health Districts of the Virginia Department of Health will be attending pride to do outreach and assist people who are interested in getting a monkeypox vaccine in filling out its vaccine interest form, Richmond and Henrico Health Districts spokesperson Catherine Long said in a statement.
Long said that VDH would not have an MPV vaccination clinic at PrideFest.
"Instead of vaccinating onsite during Virginia Pride Fest, we are partnering with Diversity Thrift to hold a monkeypox vaccination event sometime during the same month," she said.
Diversity Thrift serves the LGBTQ+ community in the area and has worked with VDH to host COVID-19 testing and vaccination events in the past, she explained.
Long said that vaccines would be given off-site because of safety concerns in hot weather with limited space to observe people during the 15 to 30-minute waiting period.
She added that walk-in events aren't possible for the department currently.
"[T]he reality of our supply and demand does not permit us to hold walk in events at this time," she said. "Until our supply and demand level out, we are operating our clinics by appointment only... We've been working to make the vaccine interest form widely available through events like pride, engaging formal and informal LGBTQ+ networks and organizations, and utilizing traditional and social media."
Regarding the MPV outbreak, Millner joins a chorus of LGBTQ+ leaders urging timely action.
"We have the ability to stop the spread of this disease," he said, "but we must act now and act together to do so."