The director of the Hartford Gay & Lesbian Health Collective appealed Wednesday for a “deluge” of financial resources to help combat the spread of monkeypox, the viral disease which has now infected 69 Connecticut residents.
Linda Estabrook, the group’s executive director, addressed legislators and state health officials during a Wednesday hearing of the Public Health Committee, which was focused on monkeypox, a virus that causes painful rashes and lesions on the skin of people infected. Transmission can occur through contact with the lesions.
So far, the virus has spread largely among members of the LGBTQ community, especially men who have sexual contact with other men. Estabrook, whose health collective serves the community, said the collective has increased its staffing and doubled its clinic hours in an effort to provide treatment, vaccinations, and clear communication on the disease.
However, Estabrook stressed that more needed to be done and soon.
“What do we need now — and I really mean now as in today — we need a deluge of money to drench this health emergency called monkeypox,” Estabrook said. “We can not keep doing this piecemeal.”
At the beginning of August, Connecticut began offering vaccines to residents considered at high risk of catching the virus. Since then, a network of 20 clinics across the state have administered 1,710 doses, according to public health officials.
Estabrook said as much as $10 million in additional resources could be used both to help agencies like the collective, which has broadened its services to meet the “immediacy of the moment,” unsure of where funding will come from, as well as public information outreach at gay bars, destinations, or dating apps like Grindr.
“The state has a surplus of money, it has a significantly funded rainy day fund. And it’s raining,” Estabrook said. “We need to use the resources that we have available to take action on monkeypox. Broader, wider, bigger and, as I said earlier, now.”
During Wednesday’s hearing, officials discussed how to communicate clearly about the virus while avoiding stigmatizing members of the LGBTQ community. Although recent cases have been largely confined to the community, doctors stressed that anyone can catch the virus.
“Anyone that gets exposed could be at risk of getting monkeypox,” Dr. Michael Virata, an infectious disease specialist at Yale New Haven Health, said. “It has nothing to do with sexual orientation, gender — anyone can get monkeypox.”
However, Estabrook said the messaging should not be so broad that it goes ignored by people who are at the most risk.
“That level of simple specificity of message needs to get out there, consistently and broad based and targeted in a big way, again, now. Not in a few weeks but now and yesterday,” Estabrook said.
In a phone interview Wednesday, Johnny Rivera, a West Hartford man who contracted the virus in July, said he worried the issue was not being taken seriously enough within the LGBTQ community.
“My advice is to limit your partners, not engage in hookup culture, to have conversations with your partners regarding their recent sexual history,” Rivera said. “Get vaccinated and make sure you’re allowing the vaccine to reach its efficacy before engaging in sexual activity.”
In Connecticut, vaccinations for monkeypox are available at clinics across the state, which can be located on the Public Health Department’s website. The vaccine requires two doses and is not considered fully effective until two weeks after the second dose.