At Seattle Central College on Capitol Hill, a line of more than 200 people snaked Saturday afternoon from the Broadway entrance and wrapped around the block of Pine Street, all waiting their turn to get vaccinated against the spread of monkeypox virus.
About 300 people had already been vaccinated earlier in the day and Dr. Mark Del Beccaro of Public Health – Seattle & King County said the goal was to continue “until we run out of vaccines”.
Vaccines used against monkeypox – a form of smallpox vaccine – are rare and only about 570 doses were available. Only people deemed to be at high risk of contracting the virus were allowed to be vaccinated.
“It’s a relatively new outbreak,” Del Beccaro said. “So the amount of vaccines being prepared is not enough and it takes some time to manufacture the amount of vaccines needed.”
He said federal authorities say the vaccine supply “will gradually improve, but it could take several months before it improves significantly.”
In the meantime, the focus is on vaccinating those most at risk of infection.
The virus is transmitted through intimate contact and the majority of people infected so far are men who have sex with men or the partners of these men. Del Beccaro said men in monogamous relationships aren’t high risk.
Another vulnerable group are people who inject drugs, especially those who share needles, he said.
The disease causes small skin lesions and can have other health effects – including respiratory or digestive problems – which vary greatly from person to person depending on the severity of the infection and the strength of the person’s immune system, Del Becarro said.
Few of the sick require hospitalization, he said.
At this time, vaccination is not recommended for the general public, who are not deemed to be at high risk.
However, Del Becarro warned of the possibility of possible wider spread within the general population. He said if the small lesions caused by the virus are open, the disease could be transmitted through skin-to-skin contact which is not intimate sexual behavior.
“It’s too early to tell if this is going to be a rare occurrence or if it could become more common,” he said.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention confirmed more than 7,500 cases Friday in the United States. The White House has declared monkeypox a public health emergency.
As of Friday, King County had 152 confirmed cases, a 52% increase from the previous week. This jump suggests spread, but may also be due to increased awareness and testing.
Only two or three people have been hospitalized with monkeypox in King County, and none are hospitalized yet, public health spokeswoman Sharon Bogan said.
The federal government has so far allocated 9,160 doses of monkeypox vaccine to King County, including 4,440 that arrived on Friday.
Previous batches have already been distributed to various healthcare providers and clinics that work with high-risk populations, including the nearly 600 doses at the Seattle Central event.
Ben Meana, operations manager for the community vaccination event, said it was organized after sensitizing local community groups, including Entre Hermanos, POCAAN and Gay City.
Public health authorities have also intervened on social media used by men who have sex with men, including GrindrScruff and Sniffies, and at local bathhouses and other public sex venues.
Despite the relative mildness of monkeypox compared to AIDS, Meana said the specter of the AIDS epidemic, which was not tackled aggressively soon enough and killed many gay men in the 1980s and 1990, hovers in the minds of this community as monkeypox spreads.
“It’s the trauma and the anxiety of the community,” Meana said. Still, he added that Saturday’s event and the widespread outreach by LBGTQ+ organizations has convinced people that this time “public health is with the community.”
Del Becarro said monkeypox is unlikely to be stopped. Instead, the hope is to limit the spread so that the number of people who get it each week starts to drop.
“I don’t think it would be eradicated,” he said. “There are very few viral diseases that have been eradicated.”