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Montgomery County town hall on monkeypox to focus on LGBTQ+ community

A person receives a dose of the monkeypox vaccine at a pop-up vaccination clinic opened in Los Angeles in August. Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images.

When Montgomery County health officials hold the first in a planned series of community town hall meetings about Monkeypox on Monday evening, the focus will be on the county’s LGBTQ+ community.

A panel of experts will provide information about how the disease is spread and how to avoid becoming infected. They will also discuss treatment and vaccines.

Although the recommendations are the same for everyone, health officials decided it was sensible to reach out to the gay community first in light of how the disease has spread to date.

>> RELATED: Biden administration asks state, local officials to boost monkeypox vaccine outreach

According to the World Health Organization, there have been 39,110 laboratory-confirmed cases of monkeypox this year. About one third, 12,743, have occurred in the U.S., more than any other single country. Of the cases where the patient’s sexual orientation was known, 97% were men who have sex with men. Of that group, 82% identified as bisexual.

Despite those statistics, health officials are exercising caution in how they frame their messaging, focusing on how the disease moves from person to person, without stigmatizing the communities that have been the most impacted so far.

“Many — though not all — of the reported cases have been among gay and bisexual men,” the CDC reported in a recent advisory titled “Reducing Stigma in Monkeypox Communication and Community Engagement.”

“Given this, CDC is focusing on identifying and using specific channels that will directly reach gay and bisexual men across racial, ethnic, socioeconomic, and geographic backgrounds. In addition to this focused messaging, CDC is also providing information to a wider audience about symptoms and the behaviors that can lead to the spread of monkeypox.”

The Washington Post reported last week that the Biden administration is weighing conflicting recommendations from advocates about tying monkeypox to same-sex intimacy. The same is true in Maryland.

Montgomery County Council President Gabe Albornoz (D) said officials have heard from constituents, including “members of the LGBTQ+ community who feel that the county needs to do more to wake up — and not wait until this becomes an even higher epidemic.”

Albornoz, who chairs the council’s Health and Human Services Committee, said there is also concern that the county is advocating sufficiently for more vaccines, which are in short supply. “It feels like COVID all over again,” he said.

Councilmember Evan Glass (D), who is gay, echoed Albornoz’s assessment.

“Residents have been contacting me privately with concerns about how Montgomery County has been messaging this health situation, with gay men who are saying we over-emphasizing the sexual nature and others who are saying we’re not emphasizing it enough,” he said.

“We’re caught in a tough spot where we want to make sure everybody has the information accurately and we don’t stigmatize it.”

Maryland Health Secretary Dennis Schrader said the state has “plenty of vaccines.”
“We’re using the local jurisdictions to distribute them and if they run out we have a cache of surplus which we can get out to them,” he said. 
 
Asked about messaging and getting the word out, Schrader said that Dr. Peter DiMartino, the agency’s director of Infectious Disease Prevention and Health Services, is heading that effort. DiMartino has headed the state’s HIV outreach effort for years, Schrader said.

The CDC recommends people “consider temporarily changing some behaviors that may increase your risk of being exposed.”

“If you or a partner has monkeypox or think you may have monkeypox, the best way to protect yourself and others is to avoid sex of any kind … and kissing or touching each other’s bodies — while you are sick. Especially avoid touching any rash.”

The guidance adds that “a rave, party, or club where there is minimal clothing and where there is direct, personal, often skin-to-skin contact has some risk. Avoid any rash you see on others and consider minimizing skin-to-skin contact.” The same is true of saunas, sex clubs and sex parties, that agency said. An accompanying graphic depicts two men in bed, but the messaging makes no mention of gender.

Del. Bonnie Cullison (D-Montgomery), the openly gay chair of a House Health and Government Operations subcommittee, endorsed the CDC approach. She said her concern about the public health messaging to date is that it “seems to target people, not the disease.”

“It’s not limited to a single population and we need to understand more about disease from a clinical standpoint, and not be speaking and targeting to a particularly population,” she said. “The news stories are making it sound like you’re safe unless you’re a man having sex with a man, and I don’t feel that’s true at all.”

The Montgomery County town hall will include Acting County Health Officer James Bridgers; Glass; the county’s LGBTQ+ community liaison, Amena Johnson; infectious disease specialist Jessica Rosen; a physician with the county’s Department of Health and Human Services; and DHHS Director Raymond Crowel.

Josh Kurtz contributed to this report.