Not enough monkeypox vaccines in Palm Springs for need say community members, health officials

During a meeting Thursday night, some questioned why local, state, and federal officials aren’t doing more to get locals tested and vaccinated against the virus. 

Monkeypox vaccines are being distributed to local health care providers, but the supply of the vaccine is not nearly enough for the need in Palm Springs, which has a particularly vulnerable population according to local community members and health officials.

That was the message during a Zoom meeting Thursday evening that saw health officials from Riverside County and Riverside University Health System (RUHS) meet with concerned community members and local clinics to update them about current and future efforts to test for the disease and distribute vaccines to fight its spread. 

Monkeypox is a virus related to smallpox but much less infectious and with milder symptoms. The World Health Organization (WHO) says about 30% of smallpox patients die, and the rate is around 3% to 6% for monkeypox patients. Symptoms include fever and flu-like feelings which could be followed by a rash and lesions on the face, genitalia, or other parts of the body.

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Misty Plumley, the emergency medical specialist for Riverside County, said that the California Department of Public Health has given the county a little over 1,000 doses of monkeypox vaccine, which locally have been distributed to Eisenhower Health, Borrego Health, and DAP Health. 

“We will continue to expand that net of vaccine coverage as best as we can,” Plumley said. “The goal for us is to continue to get the vaccine out so we can get more so we can expand our net of support.”

While thanking the county health officials for trying to get as many vaccines to Palm Springs as they can, community members questioned why local, state, and federal officials weren’t doing more to get more locals tested and vaccinated against the virus. 

David Wichman, a local massage and sex worker, said he’s been on the phone for days with local officials trying to convince them to do more to get more doses of the vaccine to Riverside County and Palm Springs in particular.  

“The state of California isn’t recognizing Riverside County and especially the Palm Springs area as a monkeypox hotspot, but they’re going to see in the next couple of weeks,” Wichman said. “I just hope that they act fast enough.”

Wichman said because the Palm Springs area is popular location for sex parties and sex tourism — especially for men who have sex with men — it’s particularly vulnerable to outbreaks of the virus. 

“If we give all of our patients who qualify a vaccine, we’ll be all out of vaccines.”

Clayton Barbour, Borrego Health

Wichman himself said he had close contact with someone who had monkeypox, so he called the county public health department and was able to get a vaccine administered at his home shortly after calling.  

He’s directing friends and clients to go to Los Angeles and San Francisco, though, to get vaccinated. In those cities, more vaccines are available, and they are given without as many restrictions as Riverside County.

 “Because they need to have been vaccinated yesterday,” Wichman said.  

People who have had close contact, skin to skin or intimate, healthcare workers dealing with monkeypox samples or patients, or people have had tested positive for a sexually transmitted infection are currently eligible to receive a monkeypox vaccine in Riverside County. The vaccine is free, and available for people whether or not they have health insurance. Health officials attending the meeting said those eligibility requirements might expand in the near future. 

Representatives from DAP Health and Borrego Health told those in attendance Thursday evening they had just recently started administering vaccines and submitting data to the county public health department about men who have sex with men who tested positive for STIs in the last three months that should be made eligible for the vaccine. A representative from DAP Health said that list had 700 patients, and they only received 80 vaccine doses.   

“If we give all of our patients who qualify a vaccine, we’ll be all out of vaccines,” said Clayton Barbour of Borrego Health. Barbour said they could only give vaccines to high-risk people currently.

“It comes down to that — there’s much more need than there is vaccine,” Dr. Jennifer Chevinsky, deputy Public Health officer of Riverside University Health System said.

The local health officials said they’d be working to get more vaccines to Palm Springs and the surrounding communities. Local clinic operators said they’re working on a marketing strategy to get people to test for monkeypox, and to get those that are eligible vaccinated against the virus. 

Because the virus is so new and spreading so fast, “everybody’s kind of operating on trauma from COVID, and because it’s infecting the gay community, trauma from the AIDS epidemic,” Wichman said.

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