El Paso is now administering the monkeypox vaccine to people who are at high risk of contracting the disease, after weeks of only offering it to those who had already been exposed.
With limited doses, El Paso officials said the city is working with community health clinics to vaccinate the most vulnerable population. But some queer men in El Paso said they were unaware of this effort and voiced frustration about the lack of public information on monkeypox vaccine availability.
El Paso has received enough vaccines from the state to vaccinate 1,800 people. As of a week ago, the city has administered 238 first doses of the two-dose vaccine.
Michael Gutierrez, president of the Queer Student Alliance at the University of Texas at El Paso, wants the city to publicize on its monkeypox webpage how many vaccine doses it has received, the number of people vaccinated so far, and instructions for how high-risk individuals can make an appointment.
“Nobody in our community needs to ask for this information. It should just be given to us,” Gutierrez said. “Hiding it behind a curtain, because we’re afraid it’s going to cause more fear, is more scary than it actually is.”
El Paso public health officials said they’ve asked four community health clinics – Sunset Care ID, Project Vida, Centro San Vicente and Centro De Salud Familiar La Fe – to identify vulnerable individuals who can receive the vaccine at one of the city’s health clinics.
La Fe is referring interested patients to the city health department to determine eligibility, while Project Vida is scheduling appointments for patients it determines to be at high-risk for the virus. Project Vida had scheduled 18 patients for the vaccine as of Sept. 23. La Fe has not received any requests for the vaccine.
The city’s Ysleta Health Center began vaccinating people in August. Sergio Flores, a specialist in HIV education outreach for the city, directed El Paso Matters to the Texas Department of State Health Services’ eligibility recommendations.
The state health department describes those at greatest risk of monkeypox as men 18 years and older who who have sex with men and have had multiple or anonymous sex partners within the last 21 days. The state further recommends vaccination for people who have have been diagnosed with HIV, had a sexually transmitted disease within the last year or are taking PrEP, the medication for preventing HIV.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also recommends vaccination for people who anticipate being in a situation where they might be exposed to monkeypox.
El Paso has recorded two cases of monkeypox to date. Statewide, there have been more than 2,200 confirmed cases, with hotspots concentrated in the Dallas and Houston areas. While the spread has begun slowing down in big cities, public health experts remain cautious.
The majority of cases are circulating among gay and bisexual men, though monkeypox can affect anyone regardless of gender, sexuality or age. The viral disease is most often transmitted by skin-to-skin contact.
Gutierrez said a couple pointed him to LGBTQ groups for vaccine information after UTEP’s Queer Student Alliance made an Instagram post calling out for vaccination transparency.
“I think the queer community in general has always been that way – passing information in between each other to take care of each other, because the government won’t,” Gutierrez said.
While people who are active in El Paso’s LGBTQ organizations have access to this information, Gutierrez is concerned whether this information is reaching the “queer person on their own.”
Tyler, an El Paso resident who asked to be identified by first name only, said he was only able to make a vaccine appointment after reaching out to several LGBTQ groups in El Paso. He knows someone who got vaccinated in New Mexico, where people can register for the monkeypox vaccine online.
Though El Paso has far fewer cases than other major Texas cities, the city should follow their lead in streamlining the vaccination process before a potential outbreak occurs, Tyler said.
Austin, which confirmed 176 cases, has an online form to verify eligibility for the monkeypox vaccine. The city also posts a weekly update of case numbers online. San Antonio, with 74 confirmed cases, also has an online case count and form to register for the vaccine.
Galveston, a county with a smaller population than El Paso, recently set up a mobile monkeypox vaccine clinic over Pride weekend. The county has one confirmed case and five probable cases, which it tracks on its website. A form is available online in English and Spanish that people can fill out to be screened for vaccine eligibility.
El Paso offers information about monkeypox at www.elpasotexas.gov/public-health/monkeypox. When vaccine recommendations change, the city will notify the community of any new groups eligible to receive the vaccine before they are exposed, according to the website.