By Genoa Barrow | OBSERVER Senior Staff Writer

Clarmundo Sullivan and his organization, Golden Rule Services, partnered with Sacramento County Public Health earlier this month for a proactive monkeypox vaccination clinic in South Sacramento. Louis Bryant III, OBSERVER

As part of his commitment to keeping the community safe, area health champion Clarmundo Sullivan is closely watching monkeypox, hoping it doesn’t become a crisis.

Sullivan and his organization, Golden Rule Services, partnered with Sacramento County Public Health earlier this month for a proactive monkeypox vaccination clinic in South Sacramento. Being the first community-based organization to offer the vaccine, he said, was an extension of a mission to serve the LGBTQ community and end the HIV and STI epidemics in Sacramento County.

“We were able to get at least 16 to 20 individuals in here that we’ve identified as individuals that could have possibly been exposed, and so we got them vaccinated,” Sullivan said.

With monkeypox cases rising in the United States and California, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services is focusing on prevention and has expanded vaccine availability for people at high risk of contracting the disease. As of July 5, 111 cases had been reported statewide. Eight of those are in Sacramento County.

“We know, unfortunately, at least one of those cases was known to be someone who is a gay or bisexual man,” Sullivan said. “When we found out about it, we contacted Sacramento County Public Health and said, ‘Hey, is this something that is disproportionately impacting, who we call MSM, men who love men, or men who have sex with men.’ ”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, monkeypox can spread from person to person through direct contact with the resulting rash, scabs, or bodily fluids; respiratory secretions during prolonged, face-to-face contact; or during intimate physical contact, such as kissing, cuddling, or sex. While anyone can become infected, federal and county health officials said much of this year’s outbreak has occurred among persons self-identifying as MSM.

In response, Sacramento County Public Health is expanding preventative vaccine availability criteria to include MSM and those who identify as transgender and are at high risk of exposure to monkeypox.

“With expanded availability of the vaccine from the federal government, we want to make vaccines available to those who are high-risk in hopes of preventing additional monkeypox cases,” said Public Health Officer Dr. Olivia Kasirye. She added that those considered high-risk might benefit from a two-dose, preventative vaccine.

While there are only a few cases locally, Sullivan said there’s enough cause for concern. 

“For me, everything is about prevention,” he said. “We know unfortunately, how these things move within people of color and lower-income communities. We know we’re going to be hit the hardest.”

Of the 100 clients they called to invite them to get the vaccine at no cost, most replied with a side eye. “About 75% of the individuals that we contacted said that they’re not interested or they’re concerned about the vaccination, just like they were with COVID,” Sullivan said. “There’s just not a lot of information about it. People want to know, ‘what are the side effects?’”

African Americans particularly have a distrust of government and medical entities thanks to historical injustices including the Tuskegee experiment, in which Black men from the 1930s-1970s thought they were being treated for ailments including syphilis. People also cite the unauthorized use of cells extracted from Henrietta Lacks, a Black woman, that to this day are used for medical research.

While Golden Rule Services wants the community to be protected, Sullivan said he understands its hesitancy.

“There’s that medical mistrust, like we had with COVID and getting the vaccinations,” he said. “If it should disproportionately impact gay men, if it should disproportionately impact people of color, we’re going to have a hard time convincing those two communities to get vaccinated because of what we saw with COVID-19.”

While many African Americans readily got the COVID-19 vaccine when it became available, mistrust and misinformation also slowed distribution. Nationally, only 49% of the population is fully vaccinated. In Sacramento, the level reached 50% only fairly recently.

Sullivan said the county is being “hypersensitive” in its monkeypox response. It has to be, he said, to not out anyone, cause hysteria or place blame on one particular group, as happened during the height of the HIV/AIDS epidemic.

The number of local cases may rise soon once the county receives data from the past month. During that time, observances such as Juneteenth, Pride festivals and Independence Day brought out people to celebrate in close contact – and likely meet up and become intimate while celebrating.

“We’re going to see it blow up. That’s what the trend tends to be when it comes to these public health issues,” Sullivan said. “I really hope I’m wrong.”

Education, he said, is the key to changing that. To that end, he cited an educational flier distributed by the county sharing what it knows so far about monkeypox. Sullivan would rather see the flier spread than the virus. “We just want to make sure our community is aware.”

The sooner the better.

“When it comes to public health, people of color, we tend to be overrepresented when it comes to any of this stuff,” he said. “Why not at least get the word out so that we can at least try to prevent some things from happening. That’s why we had a clinic here at Golden Rule Services because we’re going to make sure our community knows.”

Sullivan said he looks to the county’s continued monitoring of how the disease is moving locally to determine whether more vaccination events are warranted.

The county encourages those who want the vaccine to contact their primary health care provider or the Sacramento County Public Health Immunization Assistance Program at 916-875-7468.