More than 13,500 monkeypox cases have been reported in the U.S. this week, with almost 1,000 of those originating in LA County. The White House announced today that it’s securing 1.8 million new doses in the coming days.
So far, public health officials have focused on gay and trans men, who are most at risk. But in LA, many sex workers and organizations are working to broaden access to vaccines.
“If I have a patient that may not fall into that particular category [gay or trans man], but I talked with them, and I know they're having scene partners or sexual partners who may be crossing over among genres, to me that person is at risk, and we will vaccinate them,” says James Bell, the medical director at the Los Angeles LGBT Center.
The LA LGBT Center has teamed up with Performer Availability Scheduling Services (PASS), which keeps sex workers in the adult industry safe.
Typically, the organization helps workers test for sexually transmitted infections to ensure there is no spread of infection on sets. But when monkeypox first appeared, PASS Executive Director Ian O’Brien realized he would need to find vaccines too. Federal eligibility requirements haven't made it easy.
“The hyper-specific eligibility criteria, even among men who have sex with men, particularly in the beginning of the rollout, made it very difficult for folks to be able to access [the monkeypox vaccine],” he says.
O’Brien says that so far there have only been a few cases at studios that produce mainly gay content. But he says the adult industry is interconnected, and sex frequently takes place between people of different genders and sexual orientations.
As a result, he says the federal guidelines that are supposed to help people avoid monkeypox aren’t viable for sex workers.
“The behavioral strategies that have been recommended by public health institutions of reducing sexual partners or networks or even abstinence policies aren't effective for folks who are dependent on their livelihood coming from sexual behavior,” he says. “It's also an industry without sick pay. So by the time an outbreak occurs, we'd have significant damage to the workers in our industry.”
Bell remains hopeful as he continues to advocate for more access to vaccines for sex workers.
“The one good thing is LA County has given us as clinicians [permission] to use our best medical judgment when we have a patient in front of us. I have many patients who are in the adult industry who do sex work. So while they may not fit into these perfectly defined eligibility criteria, I do have that judgment as a medical provider so that I can vaccinate folks.”