‘We're Fighting Two Pandemics at Once:' NYC Opens Monkeypox Mass Vaccine Sites

The city's monkeypox vaccine rollout had been marred by ongoing problems and a chronic lack of supply, but Friday's appointment rollout went smoothly — except for all the appointments getting booked within minutes

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What to Know

  • The United States is in the midst of its largest-ever monkeypox outbreak, and while there is an existing vaccine for this virus, getting a vaccine appointment has proven difficult in NYC, whether due to high demand or technological errors
  • NYC accounts for more than 25% of US monkeypox cases, according to the CDC; at this point, eligibility is limited to gay, bisexual or other men who have sex with men and transgender, gender non-conforming or gender non-binary persons ages 18 and older who have had multiple or anonymous sex partners in the last 14 days,
  • Monkeypox symptoms include fever, headache, muscle aches, and exhaustion. Lymph nodes can also swell. The incubation period is usually 7−14 days but can range from 5−21 days

New York City's health commissioner says the city is battling dueling pandemics after a low vaccine supply and slow testing apparatus haven't been able to contain one of the largest-ever outbreaks of monkeypox.

Hoping to turn the tide and catch up to a virus that's doubled its patient count in less than a week, the city used the latest vaccine delivery to open three mass vaccination sites on Sunday, for one day only. Those sites are located at:

  • Aviation High School (45-30 36th Street in Queens)
  • Bushwick Education (440 Irving Avenue in Brooklyn)
  • Bronx High School of Science (75 W 205th Street in the Bronx)

After opening each of the mass vaccination sites, the city will have finally offered doses of the vaccine in all five boroughs. The initial rollout of shots started at a single clinic in Chelsea before a second location was opened in Harlem. Subsequent health clinics have been provided vaccine in Corona, Queens, and Staten Island.

"This is always a balance as we learned with COVID. We need to get shots in arms as quickly as possible, but we also need to ensure that equity is built in from the beginning and that's what we're trying to do now," Health Commissioner Dr. Ashwin Vasan said from the Bronx site Sunday morning.

Thousands of appointments for Sunday's mass vaccine drive were snatched up Friday following a 6 p.m. online drop. All 9,200 slots were scooped up in less than 10 minutes, but city officials promised to make 4,000 additional appointments available to people at high-risk through referrals by community partner organizations.

The city was able to avoid another technological blunder, as the site to book an appointment didn't crash or accidentally release times too early, as has happened the last two times slots were opened up.

Vasan followed up his tour of the Bronx school with a briefing where he addressed the early hiccups of the city's outbreak response and described its hurdles "fighting two pandemics at once."

"The fact is, you've got higher than normal transmission of an illness in multiple countries, across multiple continents. So that's the definition the technical definition of a pandemic," the health commissioner said.

The latest effort to maximize vaccine distribution comes as cases are doubling in New York City practically every five days. The city represents more than a quarter of all U.S. infections, according to CDC data, and more than 2% of all current infections worldwide. On Thursday, the city reported a total of 389 infections, up 16% in a day.

It rose again Friday to 461, a 19% day-over-day increase. And more than 95% of cases through July 13 were men.

City health officials have shifted their vaccine distribution strategy when it comes to second doses, instead delaying the additional shots in order to get more first doses done as quickly as possible. That adjustment helped the city make an additional 1,000 first dose appointments available in Friday evening's blitz.

City Hall has now formally asked the Biden Administration to delay those second doses, precisely so it can get more first doses in arms while supply is constrained.

"We made a choice last week to prioritize first shots because my scientists looked at the data and said the first shot provide sufficient protection. Not as much as two shots, but significant," Vasan added.

There are another 29 monkeypox cases in New York's other counties, with Westchester now home to the second-most, with 16 confirmed cases. The plan for vaccination is also underway there, with several hospitals and community health centers administering 450 vaccine doses. Another 520 will be available starting July 18, by appointment only at the Count Health Clinic on Court Street.

Gov. Kathy Hochul said Friday that another 32,000 doses from the federal government will be heading to New York and the city starting next week.

Governor Kathy Hochul has been pushing for more help from the federal government in obtaining Monkeypox vaccines as the city scrambles to give out the doses they currently have available, Rana Novini reports.

At this point, eligibility in New York City is limited to "gay, bisexual or other men who have sex with men and transgender, gender non-conforming or gender non-binary persons ages 18 and older who have had multiple or anonymous sex partners in the last 14 days," under the guidelines released by the health department. Learn more here.

While monkeypox is highly contagious and typically confined to the African continent, health officials say the risk to the general U.S. public is low. They say this isn't COVID all over again because vaccines already exist to treat orthopoxvirus, the family of viruses to which monkeypox and diseases like smallpox and chickenpox belong.

The city is also launching more active messaging, saying people could now receive text alerts about the virus and new appointment openings by texting MONKEYPOX to 692692, or MONKEYPOXESP for alerts in Spanish.

Getting one's hands on a first dose has been difficult, as only a few thousand appointments have opened in the past few weeks. And the portal used to make the appointments hasn't exactly been working the way officials hoped it would.

On Tuesday, appointments ran out almost immediately after a wave of errors left many people unable to even access the booking website. The city Health Department said that the scheduling site went down "due to a high level of traffic" — a problem that many are hoping has been remedied in time for Friday's release.

That hiccup followed what the city said was an "unfortunate glitch" the week before. A July 6 error opened the appointment window prematurely, prompting a flood of confusion and a flurry of apologies from city health officials as they worked to correct the problem.

All of the 2,500 appointments inadvertently released were again scooped up extremely quickly, within 10 minutes. The city said that the glitch was the result of a third-party vendor, not the department itself. The department later said it would honor all of the erroneously made appointments from earlier in the day.

What Is Monkeypox?

Monkeypox was first discovered in 1958, when outbreaks occurred in colonies of monkeys kept for research -- resulting in its name. (What you need to know about monkeypox.)

The first case in a human was reported in 1970 in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which still has the majority of infections. Other African countries where it has been found: Cameroon, Central African Republic, Cote d’Ivoire, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Gabon, Liberia, Nigeria, Republic of the Congo and Sierra Leone.

Human symptoms of monkeypox are similar to but milder than the symptoms of smallpox, the CDC says. It presents itself as a flu-like illness accompanied by lymph-node swelling and rash on the face and body.

Monkeypox starts off with fever, headache, muscle aches, and exhaustion. Monkeypox also causes lymph nodes to swell, something that smallpox does not. The incubation period is usually 7−14 days but can range from 5−21 days.

The CDC is urging healthcare providers in the U.S. to be alert for patients who have rashes consistent with monkeypox, regardless of whether they have traveled or have specific risks. See more information from the travel notice here.

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