CHICAGO — More than 100 people have been diagnosed with monkeypox in Chicago — and local officials are urging residents to talk about the virus to reduce stigma, raise awareness and prevent its spread.
Anyone can catch monkeypox, which is spread through skin-to-skin contact and droplets from sneezing, coughing or kissing. But many people don’t realize that, officials said during a panel held Thursday night with Ald. Maria Hadden (49th) and health experts from Howard Brown Health.
“The education aspect is so important because there’s so much stigma attached to monkeypox right now because the outbreak started in the LGBTQ+ community, specifically men having sex with men, but it’s not an STI,” Hadden said. “This is something anyone can get, and I think a lot of people don’t know that.”
Vaccines which prevent spread remain scarce, so Chicago officials have limited them to the people most at risk for getting the virus, they said. But more vaccines are soon expected to arrive in Chicago, according to a Chicago Department of Public Health news release. Officials from that agency are expected to hold a news conference 11 a.m. Friday.
“Do other people outside the LGBTQ+ community got skin?” said Dr. Maya Green, chief medical officer of Howard Brown Health. “I don’t see the virus going around asking people about their sexual orientation or gender identity. Let’s just go ahead and take the stigma off so we can treat humans and do better for our communities.”
Symptoms of monkeypox usually appear a week or two after a person is infected and include a flu-like illness and a painful, itchy rash that can look like pimples, said Trevor Hedberg, a physician’s assistant at Howard Brown Health.
Monkeypox is spread through close contact, like touching someone’s rash and sores, sharing bedding or towels or respiratory droplets by kissing, coughing or sneezing.
The disease is typically only contagious when someone is experiencing symptoms because it spreads through the fluids coming from someone’s rash and sores as well as droplets from coughing and sneezing, Hedberg said. It can also spread through sharing bedding or towels and kissing, according to the CDC. Unlike COVID-19, monkeypox doesn’t hang in the air, Green said.
Authorities are already distributing the vaccine to people who are most at risk of catching the disease right now, but the supply is limited. Those who have been in contact with someone who has the disease, men who have sex with men, sex workers and people who have sex with multiple partners are eligible to be vaccinated.
In the meantime, having conversations with partners and loved ones about potential exposures and limiting skin-to-skin contact with strangers can reduce the spread, Hedberg said.
“Harm reduction could look like talking to your sexual partners about if they’ve been having symptoms or asking whether or not they’ve been vaccinated yet,” Hedberg said. “If someone’s interested in going to a large event … harm reduction could mean saying, ‘I’m not going to this dance party, but I will go to the street fair where I may not have as much close contact with people.’”
To be fully vaccinated, a person needs to receive two doses at least four weeks apart. Full immunity kicks in about two weeks after the second dose, Hedberg said.
Steven Glass, Howard Brown Health’s COO, said the agency’s earliest available monkeypox vaccine appointments are three weeks out and they’re receiving thousands of voicemails requesting appointments. They hope to expand their distribution as soon as more doses of the vaccine become available, he said.
“All of that is dependent on the supply of vaccines we receive,” Glass said. “We’re taking a two-pronged approach, trying to bring people into our centers we know would benefit the most and trying to be in the communities we know are at risk so we can reach those individuals who won’t make it in.”
People who suspect they have the disease can call 773-388-1600 to get an appointment, Glass said.
People who are diagnosed with monkeypox can receive treatments for their symptoms as the virus runs its course for about two to four weeks, Green said. Anyone can receive care at Howard Brown Health regardless of their ability to pay.
Hadden encouraged people to contact their local representatives so government officials feel pressured to respond more strongly to the outbreak.
“I see so many opportunities for us to get ahead of this,” Hadden said. “In some instances, we know more about monkeypox than we knew about coronavirus, and we should be blasting that information out to make sure we’re doing our best to keep our communities safe.”
Here’s where you can get vaccinated:
• Touché, 6412 N. Clark St., is hosting a Pox Vax Party 9 p.m. Friday. At least 100 vaccine doses will be offered on a first-come, first-served basis, according to its website. Those who attend can ask questions about monkeypox during a short presentation or speak to health care professionals privately.
• The Test Positive Aware Network clinic, 5537 N. Broadway, is distributing vaccines 2-6 p.m. Mondays until further notice, according to the organization’s website.
Listen to “It’s All Good: A Block Club Chicago Podcast”: