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Richmond and Henrico Health Districts expands monkeypox eligibility

The Richmond and Henrico Health Districts' main location in Richmond's Monroe Ward
Crixell Matthews
The Richmond and Henrico Health Districts is expanding eligibility for the monkeypox vaccine. Thus far, it has administered 1,911 doses of the vaccine. (File photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

The Richmond and Henrico Health Districts expanded who is eligible for a monkeypox vaccine earlier this week, coming in line with state guidance.

Now, people of any gender or sexual orientation can get the vaccine if they have had more than one sexual partner or anonymous sexual encounters in the past two weeks. Also, those who work in a venue where sex occurs can get the shot. People with HIV or those who have contracted a sexually transmitted infection in the past three months also qualify for the vaccine in Richmond and Henrico.

Previously, only sex workers or men who have close contact with other men were eligible for the shot. That’s despite the fact that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported sexual contact isn’t the only way monkeypox spreads. It can be spread through any “direct contact with the infectious rash, scabs, fluid from sores or saliva.” The CDC also said the disease spreads via “respiratory secretions during prolonged, face-to-face contact, or during intimate physical contact, such as kissing, cuddling, or sex.”

Though she said rates of the disease are decreasing locally, RHHD Director Melissa Viray said at a Thursday press conference that those at risk should still seek a vaccine.

“We have been seeing a decrease in cases of monkeypox in Virginia and in the U.S. It's been trending downwards, probably for the last couple of weeks, maybe even since August,” Viray said. “It's important for us to continue to be vigilant as transmission is still occurring in our communities.”

According to James Millner, director of Virginia Pride, concern among the gay community has subsided as more and more people get vaccinated.

“I think it is not the same level of heightened concern that there was a few months ago,” Millner said at the press conference.

Because there isn’t sufficient data available on how many Virginians identify as gay, it’s not possible to identify what percentage have accessed the vaccine. However, a survey conducted by the CDC of men who have sex with other men found that about half of respondents changed their behaviors in response to the monkeypox outbreak —  reducing the number of partners they have sex with and reducing anonymous sexual encounters.

So far, according to Viray, the district has administered 1,911 doses of the vaccine and distributed 555 vaccine doses to other healthcare providers in Virginia. There have been no deaths due to monkeypox in Virginia during the current outbreak, though the disease can be fatal in very rare cases.

There’s already evidence that the vaccines are making a difference. According to a report from the CDC that looked at monkeypox cases in 32 public health districts, unvaccinated males between the ages of 18 and 49 were 14 times more likely to contract the disease than their vaccinated peers.

The local health district’s move to expand vaccine eligibility to those with HIV or those who have contracted an STI in the past three months came in response to an announcement from the CDC that people with weakened immune systems or who are living with HIV are more likely to become seriously ill if they contract monkeypox.

“Recent data have also suggested a high co-prevalence of monkeypox and HIV infection, and/or recent STI infection, in folks with monkeypox,” Viray said.

According to another recently released report from the CDC, 38% of people living with monkeypox also had an HIV infection.

Now that eligibility criteria for the vaccine have been expanded, Viray said the health district expects to see a significant increase in demand for the shot. Millner said even people eligible under previous guidance will be more likely to request a vaccine now that they don’t have to reveal sensitive information to the government in order to access a shot.

“That involved some very personal intimate questions that many folks were uncomfortable providing to a government agency,” Millner said. “I am very glad to hear that those questions have been relaxed.”

Now, the questionnaire that reciepients have to fill out simply asks if they meet any of the qualifying criteria, without specifying their sexual orientation or area of employment.

To access a monkeypox vaccine, contact the Richmond and Henrico Health Districts at (804) 205-3500.