Community health RN Kristen Figueroa administers the smallpox and monkeypox vaccine to Luis Gonzalez during a monkeypox vaccination clinic at CALOR in Humboldt Park on Aug. 17, 2022. Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago

CHICAGO — Local health clinics are asking for more funding and help from the government to combat the spread of monkeypox.

More than 800 people have been diagnosed with monkeypox in Chicago since it was first detected here in June, according to city data. City leaders have urged people to take the virus seriously and to get vaccinated if eligible, get tested and take steps to prevent its spread.

But local health providers said they haven’t been provided with the extra funding or help they need to offer those services, address the monkeypox outbreak and keep people safe.

“A lot of this work we’re doing, like running vaccination events and paying staff overtime, is being paid for by the health center,” said Dr. Anu Hazra, a physician at Howard Brown Health Center. “We’re bearing the brunt of the cost, so I think it’s important for the local and federal government to recognize that and compensate centers like Howard Brown which really aren’t as equipped as larger medical centers.”

Doctors at Howard Brown were among the first to respond to monkeypox because the organization prioritizes serving the LGBTQ+ community, the population most affected by monkeypox so far. 

While keeping up with the day-to-day needs of patients, Howard Brown physicians have worked overtime to provide testing for the virus and treatment for people who have it, Hazra said.

Howard Brown also established four hubs across the city where its staff have vaccinated more than 8,000 Chicagoans, Hazra said.

“Clinics that primarily deal with sexual health have borne the brunt of monkeypox, in terms of figuring out protocols for screening folks and vaccine strategies,” Hazra said. “With Howard Brown being one of the largest sexual health providers in the Midwest, we’ve definitely had to overhaul our workflows and adapt to make sure we can meet the needs of our patients.” 

Dr. Anu Hazra is among the physicians at Howard Brown Health Center working to address the city’s monkeypox outbreak. Credit: Provided//Howard Brown Health Center

Chicago’s problems mimic what is being seen throughout the United States: Providers are struggling to get government funding and resources — like vaccines — to respond to the outbreak.

Chicago’s public health department hasn’t gotten specific federal funding to distribute to local health centers to respond to monkeypox, spokesperson James Scalzitti said. 

State and federal officials have recognized monkeypox as a public health emergency, allowing government agencies to better coordinate to do things like distributing the vaccines that are available. And the federal government has ordered more monkeypox vaccine doses, since demand has far outpaced supply.

But the Biden administration privately estimated it may need $7 billion to address monkeypox across the United States, and it hasn’t made a formal request for the funding, the Washington Post reported.

The Chicago Department of Public Health “doesn’t have any dedicated MPV funding from the federal government, but it certainly would be good if we did, though the public health emergency declarations from the state and federal government do give us more flexibility with the funds we already have,” Scalzitti said. 

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The availability of testing, treatment and vaccines for monkeypox was limited until recently, but those resources have become more readily available, Hazra said.

More commercial labs have started accepting monkeypox tests, which means it’s easier for people to get tested if they think they have the virus, Hazra said.

And doctors can more efficiently prescribe treatment for monkeypox now that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reduced the amount of paperwork necessary for a patient to qualify, Hazra said. 

There are also more vaccines available, though they’re still in high demand, Hazra said. 

“A lot of the bottlenecks we experienced initially in June and early July have been partially corrected but not fully resolved,” Hazra said. “I wish that we were at the place we are now four weeks ago, but at least we’re here now.” 

Ultimately, clinics such as Howard Brown need more money to respond adequately to the outbreak, Hazra said. Howard Brown’s main sources of funding come from federal dollars and donations.

“If we don’t get additional funding or some sort of support from the government, we will have to rely more heavily on philanthropy and whatnot,” Hazra said. “At the end of the day, to keep our lights on and keep providing these wraparound services, we have to be financially sustainable.” 

Community health RN Margaret Mary Butler fills a syringe with the smallpox and monkeypox vaccine during a monkeypox vaccination clinic at CALOR in Humboldt Park on Aug. 17, 2022. Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago

Officials at Chicago’s health department are trying to spread information about monkeypox through various mediums, including social media posts, posters and outreach events, Scalzitti said. Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady answers questions about monkeypox from the public during weekly livestreams. 

Health department officials also collaborate with health care providers, community organizations and elected officials to continually improve the city’s response to monkeypox, Scalzitti said. 

Hazra said the city’s messaging is commendable, but more is needed from government officials.

“While I really love the messaging from the federal and local governments around monkeypox and the way they’re centering harm reduction and destigmatizing the illness, it has a limited effect when you can’t couple that with actual interventions that can stop disease spread,” Hazra said. 

There are signs the virus might be spreading more slowly now than it was earlier this summer, Arwady said during a Thursday livestream. City data shows the number of infections being reported per week has begun to plateau.

The people who remain most at risk are sexually active gay and bisexual men and trangender people and those who’ve had close contact with someone who has monkeypox, Arwady said.

Hazra said he hopes people will think about the risk they face if they catch monkeypox and take steps to prevent that.

“We’re lucky to live in a state and city that does prioritize public health, where vaccine availability is actually quite good compared to other parts of the country,” Hazra said. “It’s easier to get a vaccine than it was maybe four weeks ago, and that’s currently the best way you can reduce your risk of catching it.” 

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