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Baltimore City is revamping its monkeypox strategy, advocates worry roll out is too slow

A vial containing the monkeypox vaccine and a syringe is set on the table at a vaccination clinic.
Nell Redmond/AP
FR25171 AP
A vial containing the monkeypox vaccine and a syringe is set on the table at a vaccination clinic.

It’s been three months since the first case of monkeypox was confirmed in Maryland which has grown to nearly 600 cases statewide, roughly 170 of which are in Baltimore City. The Baltimore City Health Department has already used 689 vaccines, leaders told Baltimore City Council members during a Wednesday morning hearing. It was not immediately clear how many people have been vaccinated since it requires a two-dose series.

Still, it’s the first time the city has shared how many vaccines have been used so far. Statewide, more than 4,100 people have been vaccinated against the virus, according to the Maryland Department of Health.

Monkeypox is a virus that spreads between people through direct contact with skin lesions. Symptoms may include a fever, body aches, chills, fatigue and potentially rashes and lesions on the face and hands. Some people may require hospitalization but most recover within a month.

Now city officials want to vaccinate more residents, especially those who are most at risk, such as men who have sex with men. But some community leaders have bemoaned the city’s vaccination outreach efforts as lackluster and that there’s not enough shots for those who want it.

As of this week, the state was allocated 23,299 monkeypox vaccine doses from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Administration for Strategic Preparedness and Response. So far, 14,539 vaccine doses have been shipped to the state health department. It was not immediately clear if the vaccines shipped have arrived yet.

Baltimore City’s health department was given 725 doses from the state, according to Dr. Letitia Dzirasa, Baltimore City’s health commissioner. The city is keeping 31 doses on hand for people who are in close contact with a person diagnosed with monkeypox.

“We understand that the demand was very high and our infrastructure made it frustrating to schedule some of those vaccine appointments,” Dzirasa told the city’s Health, Environment and Technology Committee. “Subsequently, we are working on increasing our capacity.”

The city’s next phase of its monkeypox immunization plan is to offer the vaccine to eligible patients through the city’s public health clinics such as those who treat people with sexually transmitted infections like HIV.

Health clinics participating in the federal Ryan White Program, named after a teenager who died of AIDS after contracting HIV in the 1980s, will offer the vaccine to patients.

Officials are hoping to reach people who are at the highest risk for contracting the virus, which also includes those with more than one sexual partner and those who engage in transactional sex.

Beyond that, the city plans to contract with a private company to vaccinate more residents, especially those without stable housing, and is finalizing the procurement process.

Some city officials and community advocates alike are wary that Baltimore is vaccinating people fast enough to curb the spread of the virus and identifying those who need the most help.

“My main concerns are that we have a vaccination and outreach strategy that is focused on equity,” said Danielle McCray, chairperson of the Baltimore City Health, Environment and Technology Committee. “I’m optimistic about the strategy from the health department we heard today.”

Some members of the LGBTQ+ community worried about contracting monkeypox have already traveled outside city limits to get vaccinated, a sign the city has fallen behind, one advocate said.

“The vaccinations have not been readily available at all,” said Ngaire Philip, a community development organizer for Baltimore Safe Haven, transgender health center. “People have had to go out of the city to get the vaccine, which I think is ridiculous considering we are a city with more than 600,000 people in it. At the very least we should have enough resources to get those who want to get vaccinated, vaccinated.”

Scott is the Health Reporter for WYPR. @smaucionewypr
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