The D.C. Department of Health announced on Aug. 12 that it has expanded one of its main eligibility criteria for the monkeypox vaccine from men who have sex with men who have had multiple sex partners during the previous two weeks to all people of any sexual orientation or gender who have had multiple sex partners within the past two weeks.
But in an action that DOH officials did not announce, the agency appeared to have stopped releasing the number and percentage of monkeypox cases for gay, bisexual, and other men who have sex with men in the week following the vaccination criteria change.
In its data release on Wednesday, Aug. 24, DOH resumed releasing data for the category of “Sexual Orientation.” However, the newly released data show a dramatic decline in the percentage of cases among gay and bisexual men along with a similarly dramatic increase in the number of cases listed as “Unknown” regarding the person’s sexual orientation.
That change appears to be due to a decision by DOH, which refers to itself as D.C. Health, to allow people filling out an application form for the monkeypox vaccination – as well as those who seek treatment for monkeypox — to no longer disclose their sexual orientation, even though officials have made it clear that such information would be kept strictly confidential.
The latest data release on Wednesday show that out of a total of 405 monkeypox cases in the District of Columbia as of Aug. 24, 11 (2.7 percent) were straight/heterosexual; 172 (42.5 percent) were gay; 0 cases were among lesbians (0.0 percent); 18 (4.4 percent) were bisexual; 1 (0.2 percent were in a category of “other;” and 203 (50.1 percent) were in a category of “unknown.”
A DOH spokesperson did not immediately reply to an inquiry from the Washington Blade asking why the agency appeared to have stopped releasing Monkeypox case numbers for men who have sex with men before resuming the release of those numbers. The Blade also did not receive a response to its request for an explanation by DOH on why the category of “unknown” sexual orientation has exceeded the number of reported cases among gay and bisexual men.
Like the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, DOH officials have said gay, bisexual, and other men who have sex with men comprise the overwhelming majority of reported monkeypox cases in D.C. and nationally.
DOH officials said the expanded vaccine eligibility criteria, which they said was aimed at de-stigmatizing the monkeypox virus, will leave in place the other two groups currently deemed eligible for the vaccine – sex workers of any sexual orientation or gender and staff workers of any sexual orientation or gender at establishments where sexual activity takes place such as bathhouses, saunas, and sex clubs.
The officials said the new criteria would also expand eligibility from only D.C. residents to some nonresidents such as individuals who work in the District, students enrolled at District universities/colleges, and persons “affiliated with D.C. Health Programs that receive health care services in D.C., and 18 years of age or older,” who meet the other criteria such as having multiple sex partners over the previous two weeks.
At the time it announced the expanded vaccine criteria, D.C. Health began releasing updated monkeypox case numbers every Wednesday at 11 a.m. by categories that included a person’s age, race/ethnicity, the D.C. residential ward where they live, and by the category of “Current Gender Identity.”
The Current Gender Identity category, during that first week after the vaccine criteria change, included the subcategories of “Male,” “Female,” “Non-Binary,” and “Transgender Female.” But the Current Gender Identity category at that time did not include gay, bisexual, or other men who have sex with men.
In its Wednesday, Aug. 17 data release, D.C. Health said there were a total of 350 positive cases of monkeypox in the District of Columbia as of that time. The Aug. 17 data breakdown for the Current Gender Identity category included these figures:
• Male, 343 cases—98%
• Female, 3 cases – 0.9%
• Non-Binary, 3 cases – 0.9%
• Transgender Female, 1 case – 0.3%
During a July 25 Monkeypox Town Hall sponsored jointly by D.C. Health and the Washington Blade, D.C. Health official Clover Barnes said out of the 172 reported monkeypox cases in D.C. at that time, “over 90 percent of those cases are of men who identify as gay, same-gender loving, or men who have sex with men or bisexual.”
In its monkeypox data released on Wednesday, Aug. 24, D.C. Health reported the total cumulative cases in the District had reached 405. The new data show that 397 or 98 percent of those cases were in males and just 4, or 1.0 percent, were in females.
The data show there were no cases for the group listed as female to male transgender; one case for the category of male to female transgender (0.2 percent); and three cases (.7 percent) for the category of gender nonconforming.
The latest data on D.C. monkeypox cases from all the different categories, including sexual orientation, gender identity, race/ethnicity, and age, can be accessed at the Department of Health website.