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City Council LGBTQ Caucus calls for action from Health Dept. with Monkeypox bills

Brooklyn Councilmember Chi Osse (D-Brooklyn) says city government has a “closing window” to tackle outbreak

August 11, 2022 Shantel Destra, THE CITY
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EDITORS’ NOTE: As of press time Aug. 12, there have been 472 cases of monkeypox virus in Brooklyn. As far as officials know, the monkeypox virus is transmitted via close contact through physical interaction with the skin and respiratory droplets. If you suspect you have symptoms of Monkeypox, contact a health care professional and isolate, wear a mask around those with whom you are in close contact. Monkeypox is spread primarily among men who have sex with men, but that could change.

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Following a rocky rollout of monkeypox information and vaccines by the city health department earlier this summer, the City Council’s LGBTQ Caucus on Thursday will introduce legislation aimed at strengthening New York’s response to the global emergency.

Since early June, the city has been battling an outbreak that officials have said is disproportionately affecting men who have sex with men — with 99% of cases within that community, according to a July 18 health advisory from the city Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.

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On July 30, DOHMH commissioner Ashwin Vasan along with Mayor Eric Adams declared a public health state of emergency.

But vaccine distribution has been beset with issues as case numbers rose. As of Aug. 10, there were roughly 2,000 cases of monkeypox across the city as reported by the city health department.

“There simply aren’t enough vaccines to give it to everyone who needs it,” Stephen Morse, a professor of epidemiology at the Columbia University Medical Center, told THE CITY. Morse said the city health department is “doing the best they can” given their limitations.

Releated article: More monkeypox vaccines are coming to NYC. Should you get vaccinated — and how?

The legislative package being introduced Thursday includes a resolution by Brooklyn Democratic Councilmember Crystal Hudson, co-chair of the caucus, calling on the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to increase the number of monkeypox vaccines available and ensure the number of vaccines sent to New York is reflective of the number of cases here.

It also pushes a bill from Councilmembers Chi Osse (D-Brooklyn) and Erik Bottcher (D-Manhattan) that requires DOHMH to increase reporting data on the outbreak.

If passed, the health department would immediately be required to publish more comprehensive data on monkeypox in the city — such as the number of available monkeypox vaccines at the start and end of each day, the total number of tests, the total number of cases, and the total number of vaccinated people.

Osse said New York has a “closing window” to effectively tackle the monkeypox outbreak.

“It is essential that the Council recognizes the urgency of the moment and passes these bills swiftly so that the city can arm itself with the necessary tools to win this fight with minimal harm before it’s too late,” he said in a statement to THE CITY.

‘Health Emergency’

If passed, a bill in the package sponsored by Hudson would also require the city health department to ensure that communities that are most at risk of contracting the virus and those with low vaccine accessibility are prioritized.

The department would be required to evaluate the demographics of monkeypox and vaccine recipients weekly and adjust the hours of operation and location of vaccination sites.

The legislation would also require the health department to conduct monkeypox education and prevention efforts and to establish an online portal for vaccine scheduling.

This 2003 electron microscope image made available by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows mature, oval-shaped monkeypox virions, left, and spherical immature virions, right, obtained from a sample of human skin associated with the 2003 prairie dog outbreak. Photo: Cynthia S. Goldsmith and Russell Regner via the CDC, AP

“When you have a portal for a health emergency, such as this — and even for COVID — we have to make sure that it’s not faulty. Just the fact that it’s up — but if it’s not working — doesn’t make it efficient or effective,” said Hudson.

Amid reported staffing shortages at the city health department, Hudson told THE CITY that what’s being asked of the health department is not a lot and said the caucus is “simply just holding the health department’s feet to the fire.” The councilmember underscored the need for the department to do better for communities of color as well as for low-income and queer communities.

“I think we’re requiring them to do the absolute bare minimum in order to keep people safe and healthy,” she said. “We’re asking them to do their jobs. We’re asking them to keep New Yorkers healthy and safeguard New Yorkers’ health during an outbreak.”

A spokesperson for DOHMH told THE CITY that the department “will review any legislation if introduced.”

The health department rep did not address direct questions about staffing.

Councilmember Lynn Schulman (D-Queens), chair of the Health Committee and member of the LGBTQIA+ Caucus, noted the DOHMH is already doing “some things” included in the legislative package, but said there were “some things that they can maybe do better.”

City Council Speaker Adrienne Adams called the monkeypox outbreak “extremely worrisome” and said it “deserves urgent attention.”

Related article: New York City declares monkeypox a public health emergency

In a statement to THE CITY, Adams said, “As vaccines continue to arrive, it is imperative that the city equitably distribute resources so all New Yorkers who are eligible have access to the vaccine.”

Council’s health committee is scheduled to hold a hearing on Aug. 24 on monkeypox and the city’s response to what the World Health Organization has labeled a global health emergency.

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