Frustration, anger in SF’s LGBTQ community over government response to monkeypox outbreak

As the city of San Francisco declared a state of emergency Thursday in response to rising cases of monkeypox, members of San Francisco’s LGBTQ community expressed frustration and anger over the government’s response.

Referring to the population most affected by the outbreak so far, Health Officer Susan Philip on Thursday said officials wanted “to affirm our commitment to the health of our LGBTQ communities in San Francisco, as we have historically always done as a city.”

But among LGBTQ residents, lines with hours-long waits for the vaccine and a shortage of education about best practices to avoid transmission have been common complaints, as well as a shortage of the vaccine itself. A lack of centralized information about vaccination appointments has also been a concern.

“Information is trickling down in a lot of different ways, and it’s not getting to the people that really need it the most quick enough,” said drag performer and LGBTQ activist Juanita More.

Monkeypox in the Bay Area

A well-known organizer in the city’s queer scene, More was able to get an appointment for a first vaccine dose through her physician. But she said she worries that because of the lack of information, others in the nightlife community, as well as sex workers “who are in contact with people all the time,” are not being prioritized.

Anyone can get monkeypox, but during the current outbreak it has been spreading largely through male-to-male sex.

SF Health Officer Dr. Susan Philip (left), city Health Director Dr. Grant Colfax, and Mayor London Breed address the monkeypox outbreak.

Scott Strazzante/The Chronicle

Outside of Strut, the Castro district wellness center run by the San Francisco AIDS Foundation, 68-year-old Tom Lappin said he had hoped he would receive the vaccine Thursday afternoon — after his doctor encouraged him to do so because he has cancer — but was told the waiting list had more than 1,000 people on it.

“I’m feeling apprehensive,” Lappin said, adding that the dearth of clear information about the virus and the disorganized response are making him and his husband think twice about things like sharing laundry machines with their neighbors. He said many residents like him are hearing echoes of the AIDS crisis, and questioning whether the current mindset is, “It’s just affecting gay people, and we don’t care, so we’re not shipping vaccines?”

In a report Wednesday, San Francisco officials said that 261 people had confirmed or probable monkeypox infections, with more than 30% of cases affecting Latinos across the city. Health officials also said that they anticipate cases will continue to grow in the coming weeks.

Honey Mahogany, chair of the San Francisco Democratic Party and candidate for District Six supervisor, was blunt in her assessment of the official response:

“I feel like our government across the board has really failed us in this response to this outbreak,” she said, prior to the announcement of the state of emergency.

Honey Mahogany poses for a portrait in San Francisco County, Calif., on Thursday, July 28, 2022. San Francisco declared a state of emergency over monkeypox.
Honey Mahogany poses for a portrait in San Francisco County, Calif., on Thursday, July 28, 2022. San Francisco declared a state of emergency over monkeypox.Ethan Swope/The Chronicle

“We should have learned our lessons from the HIV and AIDS crisis: that just because it affects one community doesn’t mean it can’t quickly spread to affecting everybody else,” said Mahogany.

“Additionally, I don’t think that we’ve learned our lesson from COVID-19,” she said. “We have just been through this, many of these systems haven’t even been completely dismantled yet. Why couldn’t we have used these systems to get people to (the) monkeypox vaccine?”

After San Francisco’s announcement, she said it should be followed with action on the federal level: “It’s about time! We need a local, but also a national emergency to be called so we can effectively nip this in the bud. We know how to do this, and we have the tools at hand.”

Tyler TerMeer, executive director of the San Francisco AIDS Foundation, said Thursday that while he applauded the decision to declare monkeypox a public health emergency, the foundation — and San Francisco’s queer community — had been ringing the alarm about the rapid spread of monkeypox since May , and vaccine access is still severely lacking.

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