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District of Columbia

Gay men make up 82% of D.C. monkeypox cases

Mayor calls on at-risk residents to apply for vaccinations

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Mayor Muriel Bowser watches as DC Dept. of Health Director Dr. LaQuandra Nesbitt, at left, speaks at a mayoral press conference on the city’s response to the monkeypox outbreak. (Washington Blade photo by Lou Chibbaro, Jr.)

D.C. Department of Health Director Dr. LaQuandra Nesbitt told reporters at a Monday press conference that as of Sunday, July 17, there were 122 reported cases of monkeypox in the District of Columbia and that 82 percent of those cases involved individuals who identify as gay.

Nesbitt joined D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser at the press conference to provide an update on the city’s response to the monkeypox outbreak. They each urged city residents to visit a newly released Department of Health website at PreventMonkeypox.dc.gov to obtain the latest information about the viral illness and whether they may be eligible for the vaccine that can prevent people from becoming infected.

“It is important to note, it is extremely important to note that while the majority of the cases during this outbreak are occurring in individuals who identify as members of the LGBTQ+ community, this is not a disease of the LGBTQ+ community,” Nesbitt said.

“Anyone can contract monkeypox, and it is important that we do not create a stigma at this time and that we encourage individuals to be on the lookout for symptoms,” she told the news conference.

Based on monkeypox case numbers reported nationwide by the U.S. Centers of Disease Control and Prevention, D.C.’s 122 cases represent the highest number of monkeypox cases per capita compared to any of the 50 states.

“We do have 122 cases as of yesterday,” Nesbitt said at the press conference. “The average age or the median age, rather, is 32. And the age range is 18 to 64,” she said. “The majority of cases are occurring in individuals who are 30 to 34 years old. Sixty-three [percent] of the cases are occurring in individuals who identify as white,” she continued.

“Ninety-six percent of the cases are occurring in individuals who identify as males,” Nesbitt said. “And 82 percent are occurring in individuals who identify as gay.”

In response to a question from the Blade, Department of Health spokesperson Kimberly Henderson said on Tuesday that Nesbitt was referring specifically to individuals who self-identified and self-reported their sexual orientation as “gay” when Nesbitt stated that 82 percent of the D.C. monkeypox cases were among people who identified as gay.

A joint statement released on Monday by the mayor’s office and the DOH says monkeypox is a potentially serious but rarely fatal viral illness “that can be transmitted from person to person through direct contact with the infectious rash, scabs, or body fluids.” The statement says the virus is often spread during “intimate physical contact between people, including sex, kissing, and hugging.” It says it also can be spread when a person touches fabrics, such as bedding, or towels used by a person with monkeypox.

“The initial symptoms of monkeypox often include flu-like symptoms such as fever, headache, muscle aches, and swollen lymph nodes followed by a rash and lesion on the skin,” the statement says. “The rash can look like pimples or blisters that appear on the face, inside the mouth, and on other parts of the body, like the hands, feet, chest, genitals, or anus,” according to the statement.

Monday’s press conference took place on the sidewalk outside the headquarters building on 14th Street, N.W. of Whitman-Walker Health, the LGBTQ supportive heath care clinic that is among the community-based organizations partnering with the city to address the monkeypox outbreak.

“I’m pleased to be here with Whitman-Walker,” Bowser told the press conference after she was introduced by Whitman-Walker Health CEO Naseema Shafi. “I want to thank you and your entire staff for working with D.C. Health and for continuing to work with D.C. Health in the coming weeks and months,” Bowser told Shafi.

The mayor said that as of Monday, about 2,600 people in the city had been vaccinated with their first dose of the two-dose vaccine regimen. She urged residents to go to the newly created website to determine how best to apply for an appointment for the vaccine if they believe they could be at risk for monkeypox.

“We are especially working with reaching out to members of the LGBTQ+ community, specifically to gay and bisexual men, because those are the communities most affected by the virus at this moment,” Bowser said. “But we also want the public to understand that this is not something that can only affect the LGBTQ+ community,” she said. “And we should all understand the basics of the virus and what we need to look out for.”

Nesbitt said the Department of Health was also working on monkeypox services with the D.C. group Us Helping Us, People Into Living, which has provided AIDS related services and other healthcare services for Black gay men and Black transgender women for the past 30 years, according to its website.  

Dr. Sarah Henn, Whitman-Walker’s Chief Health Officer, told the Blade that Whitman-Walker began taking steps to test and treat its patients and others for monkeypox as soon as the first case in the U.S. was diagnosed in Massachusetts earlier this year. When asked if the LGBTQ supportive health clinic has had monkeypox patients, Henn said, “Oh yes, we’ve had quite a few.”

She added, “We have quite a few in treatment. And we have others that we’re watching who have more mild disease and we’re watching to see how they do. And we’re testing anywhere from two to seven patients daily for monkeypox.”

The statement released by the mayor’s office and the DOH says the city has so far received 8,300 doses of the monkeypox vaccine and has administered approximately 2,600 doses.

It says that currently, to be eligible for the vaccine in D.C., a person must be a D.C. resident, 18 years of age or older, and fall into one of these categories:

• Gay, bisexual, or other men who have sex with men and have had multiple (more than one) or any anonymous sexual partners in the last 14 days.

• Transgender women or nonbinary persons assigned male at birth who have sex with men.

• Sex workers (of any sexual orientation or gender).

• Staff (of any sexual orientation or gender) at establishments where sexual activity occurs such as bathhouses, saunas, or sex clubs.

“All residents are invited to pre-register for a vaccination appointment, and those who are not currently eligible will be contacted if eligibility changes and appointments are available,” the statement says.

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District of Columbia

Whitman-Walker wins $280,000 grant to support LGBTQ immigrants

Providing legal resources for migrants facing persecution

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‘Having a lawyer can make the difference between having legal status and living in the shadows,’ said D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser. (Blade file photo by Michael Key)

Whitman-Walker Health, which provides medical as well as legal services for the D.C.-area LGBTQ community, was among 25 community-based organizations to receive a grant from the D.C. government earlier this month to provide legal support for immigrants.

Amy Nelson, director of Whitman-Walker’s legal department, said the $280,000 grant it received from the city for 2023 marked the fifth year in a row that the city has supported its work in providing legal support for LGBTQ immigrants arriving in D.C. from countries in Latin America as well as Asia, Africa, and Europe.

“We help people file for U.S. asylum on grounds of HIV, sexual orientation, and gender identity,” Nelson said. “Most of our cases now are trans women from Central America,” Nelson told the Blade. “But we also have people from Cameroon, Russia, and Jamaica.”

She said Whitman-Walker currently has about 150 open cases, including cases handled by outside attorneys working on a pro bono basis.

Nelson said Whitman-Walker’s legal team has provided legal advice to some of the migrants arriving by bus to D.C. that the governors of Texas and Arizona have sent in recent months. But she said most of those arriving by bus from the two states plan to leave D.C. for other parts of the country.

A Sept. 16 statement released by the office of D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser says the mayor’s fiscal year 2023 budget allocated a total of $3.5 million for grants from the city’s Immigrant Justice Legal Service (IJLS) grant program to 25 local organizations, including Whitman-Walker.

“Over the years, the IJLS program has not only benefited DC’s immigrant residents, it has also helped us advance our DC values and strengthened the capacity of legal services providers and pro bono attorneys,” Bowser said in the statement.

“Having a lawyer can make the difference between having legal status and living in the shadows, and I am incredibly grateful for the community organizations who have worked with us to make the IJLS program a success,” she said.

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District of Columbia

Bowser pledges continued support for LGBTQ community if re-elected

Mayor addresses local LGBTQ Democratic group

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D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser addressed the Capital Stonewall Democrats. (Blade file photo by Michael Key)

D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser reflected on her record of support for the LGBTQ community and pledged to continue that support if elected to a third term as mayor during an appearance Monday night before the Capital Stonewall Democrats, the city’s largest local LGBTQ political group.

The mayor’s appearance at the virtual Zoom meeting took place a little over four months after Capital Stonewall Democrats endorsed her opponent, D.C. Council member Robert White, over Bowser in the June Democratic mayoral primary. The group later endorsed the mayor in the November general election after she won the primary to capture the Democratic nomination.

In a city with Democratic voters outnumbering Republicans and members of two other small parties by a lopsided margin, Bowser is considered the strong favorite to emerge as the winner in the Nov. 8 general election.

“I’m thrilled to be here and thrilled to be your Democratic nominee for mayor,” she told members of Capital Stonewall Democrats, which used to be known as the Gertrude Stein Democratic Club.

“We spent many months, the better part of a year, going across all eight wards talking to people about their priorities for Washington, D.C., and what the next four years are really about,” she said. “And I am proud of the eight years almost now that I’ve served as mayor and the things that we’ve accomplished. And more than that, I’ve kept my word about how we would pursue D.C.’s values and our goal to make our city a more inclusive city,” she said.

“I’m also very proud of the work that I’ve done with the LGBTQ community, not only as mayor but through my tenure of service in D.C. government, which now is a little over 15 years,” she said, referring to her tenure as a D.C. Council member before being elected mayor.

“In working with our trusted organizations, all of my agency directors, all the way through the people I have appointed to serve in our LGBTQ office,” she said. “We’ve been very focused on making sure that D.C. works for LGBTQ residents.”

The mayor added, “We continue to have a focus, for example, on making sure we’re protecting our trans community from violence. But more than that, creating jobs and job training opportunities inside and outside the government.”

After delivering opening remarks the mayor answered a wide range of questions that had been submitted by members of the group and presented by the group’s president, Jatarious Frazier. Among them was a question on whether the city will partner with another organization for services for LGBTQ youth, especially trans youth of color, after the recent shutdown of the LGBTQ community services center Casa Ruby.

“I think we have some work to do to replace the work that Casa Ruby was doing,” the mayor said. “And I’m quite frankly sad about that,” she said, adding, “We like when some work is done in the nonprofit community. And we will be looking for trusted partners to help us replace that work.”

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District of Columbia

White House officials, HHS secretary praise local monkeypox response

D.C. Health points to data showing sharp decline in new cases

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HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra praised D.C. Health’s response to monkeypox.

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra and two leaders of the White House monkeypox response team joined officials with the D.C. Department of Health on Thursday for a visit to D.C.’s recently opened Monkeypox Vaccine Clinic on Martin Luther King Jr. Ave., S.E. in Ward 8.

In a briefing for reporters, who were invited to join Becerra and the White House officials on a tour of the clinic, the D.C. and federal officials pointed to a sharp decline in new monkeypox cases in D.C. as a sign of a successful federal and local government partnership in dramatically boosting the number of people at risk for monkeypox who have been vaccinated.

“I welcome you all to our Ward 8 Monkeypox Vaccine Clinic,” said Dr. Sharon Lewis, Interim Director of the D.C. Department of Health, which is also referred to as D.C. Health.

“Please take note that D.C. Health was very active in initiating back in May” the city’s effort to address monkeypox, she said. “We started our planning and as soon as we were aware of the first case in June, we had actually set up vaccines and were ready to implement our plan.”

Dr. Anil Mangla, the State Epidemiologist for the D.C. Department of Health, told the gathering the number of D.C. monkeypox cases peaked during the week of July 17, and new cases in the District have declined since then by an average of over 20 percent per week.

“I would call it our success story in D.C.,” Mangla said. “So, our cases peaked nine weeks ago, the week of July 17. If you look at the national trends and statistics, the nation essentially peaked about six weeks ago, so we were already three weeks in advance,” he said.

Mangla pointed out that the clinic where the HHS and White House officials visited on Thursday at 3640 Martin Luther King Jr. Ave., S.E. and the city’s two other Monkeypox vaccination clinics are walk-in facilities where D.C. residents can go for a vaccination without an appointment. The other two are located at 1900 I St., N.W. and 7530 Georgia Ave., N.W.

Becerra praised Mangla and his boss, Dr. Lewis, and their team of public health officials for aggressively reaching out to those at risk for monkeypox, including gay and bisexual men, to encourage them to get vaccinated and promptly treating those who tested positive for the monkeypox virus.

“So, let me first say to Director Lewis, Dr. Mangla, and to all your team, thank you for being affirmative in bringing in the steps to stop monkeypox,” Becerra said. “And more importantly, to go where the people are rather than waiting for the people to come to you.”

He said D.C. efforts in addressing monkeypox were among the efforts in other cities and states across the country where a joint federal-local partnership was taking place. 

“We need strong partnerships,” he said. “We need your help, because you know the many trusted voices in the communities that you’ve got more of than we would,” he said. “We’ll provide the vaccine,” said Becerra, noting that the Biden administration in partnership with various federal agencies, including the Food and Drug Administration, has distributed more than a million vaccine doses nationally.

Among the White House officials who spoke at the briefing and joined the tour of the Ward 8 Monkeypox Vaccination Clinic was Robert Fenton, who President Biden on Aug. 2 named as White House National Monkeypox Response Coordinator. Also speaking was Dr. Demetre Daskalakis, who Biden named as White House National Monkeypox Response Deputy Coordinator.

A statement released by the White House at the time Biden appointed the two men says Fenton has served as Regional Administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Region 9 in the western part of the U.S. and was considered one of the nation’s most experienced emergency management leaders.

The statement says Daskalakis, a leading public health expert, is currently the Director of the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s Division of HIV Prevention.

“Widely known as a national expert on health issues affecting the LGBTQIA+ communities, his clinical practice has focused on providing care for the underserved LGBTQIA+ communities,” the White House statement says.

In his remarks at the briefing on Thursday, Daskalakis also praised D.C. Health officials and the communities they have reached out to for encouraging behavioral changes among the groups most at risk for monkeypox.

“So, the clear message is that gay, bisexual, and other men who have sex with men, transgender individuals, and other gender diverse folks who have sex with men are not only getting the vaccine and testing, but also what they can do in their daily lives to be able to prevent infection,” he said. “I think that is another testament to the work you’ve done and is another example of the great partnership between federal public health and local public health.”

The D.C. Department of Health’s most recent data on monkeypox cases in the city shows that as of Sept. 15, the city had a cumulative total of 488 cases, with 19 hospitalizations and no deaths. Out of the 488 total, 97.3 percent were male, and 1.2 percent were female.

Regarding the sexual orientation of those who make up the 488 cases, 48 percent were listed as gay, 5.7 percent as bisexual, 3.9 percent as straight/heterosexual, 1 percent as “other,” and 41.4 percent as “Unknown.” The data released included an asterisk for the number of lesbian cases, which a footnote says could be four or fewer such cases.

At the briefing on Thursday, the Blade asked Dr. Mangla, the D.C. Health epidemiologist, to explain why he thought the number of D.C. monkeypox cases in gay men and other men who have sex with men were initially listed by D.C. Health officials to be over 90 percent of the total cases. But in recent weeks, the Blade pointed out, the data show the number of “gay” cases were at about 50 percent or a little lower and a new category of “unknown” sexual orientation cases was in the 40 percent to 50 percent range.

Mangla said he thought the discrepancy was due to a flaw in the data gathering during the early stage of the monkeypox outbreak in D.C. that has since been corrected. “It took us a few weeks to make that kind of adjustment and to say we are now confident enough that the data is accurate for policy decisions and anything else,” he said.

He did not say whether he or D.C. Health knows which demographic groups made up the “Unknown” category of 41.4 percent in the most recent data released.

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