Mpox is officially back in Maricopa County. Why isn't more being done?

The first case since last year's outbreak in Maricopa has already been recorded, but there is still little information coming from county and local officials... PLUS... a new "Eyes on the State"

Microscopic view of the mpox virus, formerly known as monkeypox. Maricopa County had its first case test positive since last January, but there is little concern, it seems, from the agencies in charge of getting information and vaccines out.

As Pride month begins, public health officials are concerned of a potential resurgence of mpox, the virus formerly known as monkeypox. But with all that concern, it appears not much is being done besides business as usual.

At this past weekend’s Tempe Pride—the first one to take place in the city—county and private health providers focused on the LGBTQ+ population were present at booths promoting pre-exposure prophylaxis for HIV, and regular STI testing, but mpox vaccinations were noticeably absent.

This, despite the county’s first mpox test-positive case being recorded on May 19th, according to the Maricopa County Department of Public Health. The department confirmed the first reported case of mpox since January in the Valley. The Phoenix resident affected was fully vaccinated, had mild symptoms, and recovered.

“Like we see with other vaccines, while vaccination may not prevent disease completely, it will reduce the severity of disease,” said Dr. Nick Staab, medical epidemiologist at the county’s health department. “Last summer’s mpox outbreak led to many hospitalizations and some deaths in the U.S. People being aware of the risk of mpox in our community and getting vaccinated can prevent severe disease and decrease the spread.”

Public Health officials from the Center for Disease Control are recommending gay and bisexual men who are at high risk of being exposed to mpox, particularly those who are HIV+, get vaccinated in preparation for the summer. Concerns over recent outbreaks in Chicago and France are putting pressure on health agencies to offer more vaccines and resources for gay and bisexual men who are at risk.

Because many gay and bisexual men will be gathering in large crowds for Pride celebrations all over the country, doctors are advising individuals to take precautionary measures to protect themselves from the virus.

On June 1st, the first day of Pride month, the CDC published a page on their website titled “Safer Sex, Social Gatherings, and Mpox.” The page contains information about how to have safe sex, what to do if you have a rash or symptoms, and how to lower your chances of getting mpox at social events such as raves, parties, and festivals.

Apart from the news release in May that there was one reported case of mpox in Phoenix, the Arizona Department of Health and Maricopa County Public Health have yet to release any public statements regarding the Chicago outbreak on any of their social media pages or websites. While there are plenty of posts on their social media accounts offering free vaccines, there is no mention of opportunities to get the mpox vaccine.

LOOKOUT reported the county’s lacking to push the vaccine or precautions first three weeks ago. The county has not made comment.

LOOKOUT reached out to Sonia Singh, the county’s public information officer for the medical department, but she did not respond to emails or phone calls by the time of publishing.

Spectrum Medical, an LGBTQ+ health provider in Phoenix, was one of the community organizations tabling at Tempe Pride this past weekend. A staff member who isn’t authorized to speak, told LOOKOUT that, while they offer HIV treatment, PrEP/PEP, and STI testing, they don’t currently offer the mpox vaccine.

Ruben Valenzuela, a queer attendee of Tempe Pride, was one of the first people to get the the mpox vaccine back in 2022 when the first surge occurred. He said the Arizona Department of Public Health was packed with queer people trying to get the vaccine last year. Valenzuela usually monitors social media for public health news, but he told LOOKOUT he hasn’t heard anything about the concern of a potential summer outbreak.

If an outbreak happens this summer, Valenzuela believes more LGBTQ+ people should get vaccinated. “We need to protect ourselves physically, but we also want to take care of the way people view us. So if we’re nonchalant about it and there’s a vaccine, then we don’t want somebody pointing fingers, saying, ‘oh, you guys are spreading it.’”

Public health officials are concerned that out of those who are most at risk for mpox, only 23% have been fully vaccinated. According to the CDC, the projected risk of a resurgent mpox outbreak is greater than 35% in most states in the U.S. without taking into account additional vaccination or adjusting sexual behavior to mitigate the spread of mpox. Resurgent outbreaks have the potential to be as large or larger than those in 2022, reports the CDC.

Since 2022, when the virus first appeared, there have been over 30,000 reported cases of mpox in the U.S. Of those 30,000. Arizona has had 591 cases in Arizona, with the majority of them taking place in Maricopa County. While there have been 42 reported deaths in the U.S., none have happened in Arizona.

The state, with an estimated population of a quarter million LGBT people, is ranked 12th among states with the highest mpox transmission rates per 10,000 queer people in the country. When accounting for the general population, it ranks 13th.

Maricopa County health officials are asking Valley residents to stay aware of the risk of mpox as they venture out into group settings this summer. There are currently a limited amount of doses available for the general public in Maricopa County. The health department has enough vaccines available to treat people who are at higher risk of getting mpox, and states on their website that: “available vaccine and treatment for mpox means that spread should be controllable, and cases can be managed appropriately.”

“Have fun and be healthy while avoiding the summer heat,” said Dr. Staab. “Know your risk for mpox and STIs and get vaccinated.  And don’t forget the sunscreen.”

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Mesa Public Schools Trans Support Policies

Just days before the beginning of Pride Month, Mesa Public Schools board member Lara Salmon Ellingson announced she would resign from her seat effective May 30, 2023. This decision comes after months of furor over two district-wide policies to support trans students that boiled over into intense backlash against Ellingson for her support of the policies at a May 9 school board meeting.

These policies have been in place since summer 2022, and are available to the public on the school district’s website, here. They provide an overview of relevant terms for understanding trans and gender-diverse experiences, guidelines for teachers and administrators to create inclusive environments, and a support plan template which students can request to receive help navigating their social transition at school.

Since August 2022, criticism of the policies has been a recurring feature of public comment during MPS board meetings. In May, after consulting the law firm Udall Shumway, the board assured the public that the policies were legally sound, and announced an intention to add an FAQ section alongside the policies on their website to respond to many of the common concerns raised during board meetings.

Ellingson took the time to rebut several of those concerns during the May 9 meeting, striking a balance between acknowledging her family connection to the LGBTQ+ community and giving full faith to concerns about privacy and safety in bathrooms and locker rooms. Her comments referenced existing disciplinary policies that would apply to students of any gender and highlighted elements of the trans support policies that are narrowly tailored to prevent misuse.

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