Houstonians seeking the monkeypox vaccine continue to experience frustration when trying to locate and secure a shot appointment. This was compounded by the July 28 announcement from the Houston Health Department that there would be a pause in new appointments due to a lack of supply and a waiting list that is already filled for the next shipment coming to Harris County.
However, one day later, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo announced that a supply of over 16,000 doses is on the way—a shipment that she agrees is merely a start to help Houstonians get ahead of this evolving public-health crisis.
There are currently two groups of eligibility for both the Houston Health Department (HHD) and Harris County Public Health (HCPH). Group A is by invitation only, limited to those who have had direct contact with someone with monkeypox or people who attended an event or venue where there was a high risk of exposure to someone with a confirmed diagnosis. This likely includes the Daddyland party in Dallas, where it was discovered that an out-of-state attendee tested positive after attending the event over the Fourth of July weekend.
Group B includes people 18 or over who have been diagnosed with gonorrhea or syphilis in the past three months, are on PrEP, or work at or regularly attend a commercial sex venue—saunas, bathhouses, sex clubs, etc.—where they have had multiple sex partners.
Monkeypox has seen an alarming rise in the United States, particularly among men who have sex with men. However, simply being in close contact with someone who has symptoms—or their clothing or bedding—is all it takes to pass the infection. According to Harris County Public Health, as of July 28 there were 71 confirmed cases in the county—a 60 percent increase over the previous week—and 287 cases throughout Texas.
Austin Davis Ruiz, 27, says that once he secured an appointment through the Houston Health Department, a mix-up in the clinic location information he was given forced him to travel across town and delayed his original appointment by two hours.
“I’m appreciative that the City had appointments available to begin with, and that I qualified in this new expanded eligibility grouping, but that’s about all I can say. I have heard anecdotally that others had smooth vaccination processes, which is reassuring. However, the majority of what I’ve heard from community members is frustration with the eligibility criteria.”
Matt Beard, 38, had an easier time getting the appointment, but the follow-up left something to be desired.
“Compared to the COVID vaccine campaign, this was far less organized. I am still not certain how or when I will schedule my second dose. The nurse told me to call back within a few days. However, I received a phone call the day after my first dose asking why I had not shown up for my appointment. I explained that I had gotten my first dose, and that seemed to clear up their concern. I then asked if she’d be able to schedule my second dose, and she said that I would receive a text when it was time to schedule the second dose. I have no idea if that text is actually coming. I will try calling in a few weeks to schedule the second dose and hope it works out,” Beard says.
The current criteria to qualify for a shot is also problematic for some, because revealing that you might have received the vaccine may also reveal private information to others—which some fear could prevent people in the community from seeking the vaccine or stigmatize an already marginalized community at a time when the health and safety of others is on the line.
According to one man approached for this article, who asked to remain anonymous, “Basically admitting that I meet the criteria may bring up some unnecessary questions with work and family.”
“A lot of the conversation around monkeypox has been focused on the virus being spread via sexual contact primarily among men who have sex with men, and I think this has caused some misconceptions about the illness,” Ruiz says. “We need to ensure we are talking about this accurately and characterizing the risk appropriately. This is not an STI, and this is not a ‘gay’ illness. While monkeypox poses the greatest risk of infection to men who have sex with men right now, we need to ensure that we are not characterizing this as only a gay illness. We’ve been down that road before, and it did not end well.
“Conversely, we cannot shy away from talking about [how seriously this is impacting] men who have sex with men right now. Houston’s vaccination guidelines make no mention that men who have sex with men are most at risk, whereas guidelines in other major cities (New York, Chicago, DC) do. It’s a balancing act, but right now we’re tipping in the wrong direction.”
The telephone numbers for scheduling a vaccination appointment with the City of Houston or Harris County are 832-393-4220 and 832-927-0707, respectively. The new doses will hopefully allow both the city and the county to resume taking appointments. In the meantime, it is important that accurate information be provided to the community, because if (or when) this disease makes its way to a school or summer camp, it may be too late.