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Gay men are the first group at high risk as monkeypox starts to spread in Utah

"It seemed like the smart thing to do," Ian Harris said of his decision to be vaccinated for monkeypox. "It's better to be safe than sorry." Harris is pictured here at his apartment complex on Aug. 1, 2022.
Ivana Martinez
"It seemed like the smart thing to do," Ian Harris said of his decision to be vaccinated for monkeypox. "It's better to be safe than sorry." Harris is pictured here at his apartment complex on Aug. 1, 2022.

Utah’s first case of monkeypox was detected in May. Since then, 32 confirmed or probable cases have been reported: 27 have been identified in Salt Lake County, three in Utah County and one in both Weber and Davis counties.

It starts with common flu-like symptoms such as swollen lymph nodes, fever and muscle aches. But within a few days, an infected person will begin to develop a red bumpy rash that fills with fluid.

“If one of those pustules has fluid, and it's weeping or seeping and you get that fluid on your skin, that is the primary way it's transmitted,” said Nicholas Rupp, a spokesperson with the Salt Lake County Department of Health, “which, of course, that means it could be transmitted through intimate or sexual contact.”

The virus doesn’t just travel through skin-to-skin contact. Rupp said it can be transferred through fabrics, like blankets, contaminated with lesion fluid. It can even transmit through “very close respiratory contact.”

The infection lasts between two to four weeks, Rupp said, and carriers are contagious the entire time. The county health department advises those who have monkeypox to isolate themselves the entire time. If unable to isolate, Rupp said to cover all the open liaisons to “ensure there isn’t accidental, inadvertent skin-to-skin contact with someone.”

Rupp suggests those who experience monkeypox symptoms contact their primary care physician to get tested. If there is no primary care doctor, reach out to the local health department for a test. Test results usually come back within 24 hours, Rupp said.

Right now, monkeypox is predominantly impacting Utah’s queer community, specifically “men who have sex with men” — or MSM — because it’s a “close, interconnected social community,” Rupp said.

However, anyone can catch monkeypox –– the virus doesn’t care who you are.

“This is not an MSM or LGBTQ disease,” Rupp emphasized. “It just so happens that monkeypox has hit the MSM community. But that could change tomorrow.”

Monkeypox vaccine availability

There is a monkeypox vaccine. Due to a limited supply of doses, the vaccine is only being offered to high-risk Utahns.

Currently, gay men, non-binary people or transgender individuals who have had multiple partners or intimate contact with someone who identifies as a man are eligible for the vaccine. Additionally, people who have come in close contact with someone who has tested positive for monkeypox can receive the shot.

Salt Lake City resident Ian Harris considers himself to be a “pretty pro-health” person. So when he discovered monkeypox was spreading through his community and saw some of his friends getting the vaccine, he opted to as well.

“It just seemed like the smart thing to do,” Harris, who identifies as gay, said. “It’s better to be safe than sorry.”

He considers himself lucky to be able to secure a dose. Utah has received a small shipment of the monkeypox vaccine from the federal government and is currently awaiting more doses.

Rupp said Salt Lake County expects a larger shipment sometime within the week. Once those vaccines are available, where and how to get one will be publicized on the county and state health department websites.

Once the most vulnerable populations are vaccinated, Rupp said they will open the vaccine to what data indicates may be other high-risk groups.

“We suspect it may be sex workers. It may be people who are unsheltered and are sharing blankets and clothing and sleeping bags,” Rupp said.

Harris said it was quite easy to get the vaccine. He called Salt Lake County and was able to receive the shot that same day.

He wants more of his community to get vaccinated when more doses are in stock.

“I've heard people say it's [the disease] incredibly painful and that the lesions you can get from it leave scars on your body,” he said. “So I just hope people kind of look at it, do their homework and come to a similar conclusion that I did.”

Saige is a politics reporter and co-host of KUER's State Street politics podcast
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