Monkeypox is slowly making its way into the Blue Ridge Health District.
As of Thursday, there were six confirmed cases within the district, which includes Charlottesville, and Albemarle, Nelson, Fluvanna, Louisa and Greene counties.
That’s a relatively low number compared to elsewhere in the state, especially districts near Washington D.C. where case counts are in the hundreds. But it’s enough to concern local health officials — especially because monkeypox vaccines are in short supply.
The effort to vaccinate people in Virginia against monkeypox began in late July. For now, the state health department is the only entity receiving and administering the vaccine — and it’s received fewer than 7,500 doses.
The supply problem is a national one. The U.S. had only stockpiled 2,400 doses of monkeypox vaccine when the first case was confirmed here in May, according to the Department of Health and Human Services. Since then, the agency has struggled to get more.
The U.S. government owned a large stockpile of “raw, unfinished” monkeypox vaccine that it kept at the Danish biotech company Bavarian Nordic’s facility in Copenhagen, according to an article in the New York Times. But getting that vaccine transferred to vials and shipped across the Atlantic took months.
The U.S. government finally received a large shipment of 1.1 million vials from the company last week, according to a White House press briefing. Those doses are being distributed to health departments around the country.
Because case counts in much of Virginia are still low, the state has diverted most of its vaccines to the northern health districts.
As of Tuesday, the Blue Ridge Health District, which is responsible for vaccinating locally, had received just 150 doses, and it has administered all of them. They expect to receive about 50 doses a week going forward.
“It’s a very limited amount of vaccines we’ve received and administered,” said Kathryn Goodman, a spokesperson for the Blue Ridge Health District.
That hasn’t stopped local individuals from seeking it, though.
In the first month after vaccination efforts began, it was only available to people considered by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to be at high risk of infection: Men who have multiple sexual partners who are also men, sex workers and staff at establishments where sex occurs, and people who attend “sex-on-premise” venues.
The latter two categories are difficult to track, health officials say. But, among the local gay community, interest in the vaccine has been high.
“I have myself been vaccinated,” said Jason Elliott, a Charlottesville resident who hosts local queer events. “From my perspective, a lot of us have been really enthusiastic about getting this. I literally can’t count the number of conversations that I’ve had as a queer advocate and activist here in this community, where people are reaching out and saying, ‘Hey, where can I get my vaccine?’”
Around the world, men who have sex with men are contracting the disease at a much higher rate than other populations, according to the World Health Organizations. Men comprise 99% of the cases WHO has identified worldwide. Of those in which sexual orientation was reported, 97% identified as either gay, bisexual, or other men who have sex with men. And 91% said listed sexual encounters as the method of transmission.
In Virginia, 321 of the 325 confirmed cases are men.
The disease, in general, is difficult to contract. It requires close contact between two people for prolonged periods. People get it by coming into direct contact with a monkeypox rash or the bodily fluids from a person with the disease. They can also get it through prolonged face-to-face contact with someone who is infected, or if they touch the clothing, linens or other surfaces that were used by someone with monkeypox.
“Monkeypox is not easily spread between people,” Dr. Costi Sifri, an infectious diseases specialist with UVA Health, told UVA Today. “However, anyone in close contact with a person with monkeypox can get it and should take steps to protect themselves.”
On Friday, the health district expanded vaccine eligibility to include people of any gender who have had multiple sexual partners.
As of Wednesday, 270 people have expressed interest in the vaccine.
Anyone who wishes to be vaccinated should fill out this vaccination interest form, and the health department will contact you when a vaccine becomes available.