All three men remember clearly the toll of the HIV pandemic — stripping away their lives, killing their friends, turning the heterosexual world against them.
So, when word came that a new virus was circulating among gay and bisexual men who have sex with men, their reaction? A scramble to get vaccinated against monkeypox.
Doing so felt essential, they said, but also like a luxury. Four decades later, there is still no vaccine or cure for HIV. Monkeypox has both.
“If they had a vaccine for HIV back in the day, people would’ve been tearing down doors to get it,” said Thomas Vernadore, who got the monkeypox vaccine a few weeks ago.
The monkeypox vaccine isn’t new — but it’s new to much of the world and has sparked some of the same fears that fueled hesitancy toward the COVID-19 vaccines.
Three men who got the shot in Myrtle Beach and live in the Grand Strand shared their experiences of what it was like, why they got vaccinated and how current discussions about monkeypox and associations with homosexuality (despite the virus being able to infect anyone) have affected their lives.
No choice at all
When Vernadore heard there was a vaccine for monkeypox, it wasn’t a choice of whether to get it — but a scramble to see how quickly he could.
Vernadore already lives with one virus that had caused harm to the gay community, HIV, and he didn’t want another.
Seeing that there was already a monkeypox vaccine brought him relief. Back in the ‘80s and ‘90s, none of the drug cocktails used to combat HIV were working. It took years to finally find a treatment that would bring him back from the brink of full-blown AIDS, the illness caused by HIV.
Vernadore has now been on drugs that do work for several decades, but a vaccine for HIV would’ve spared him from so much pain.
“I got that virus,” he said, referring to HIV. “I didn’t want to get this one.”
As of last Friday, South Carolina has given out 452 doses of the Jynneos monkeypox vaccine. Fifty-seven cases have been detected so far in the state, including one in the Pee Dee region. The rest of the cases are split about evenly across the Midlands, Lowcountry and Upstate.
While monkeypox itself is not likely to be deadly except in the most extreme cases, the virus is known to cause excruciating pain, and some of the patients in South Carolina who have contracted it have had to be hospitalized to help with pain management while their bodies fought off the virus on their own, the state health department said in a briefing on Aug. 3.
All three men who spoke with The Sun News said they were glad to get the vaccine and side effects from the shot were relatively minimal. One of them, Thomas Baltz, likened it to a bee sting, and another, who requested to remain anonymous, said his only symptom was arm soreness for a few days, similar to any other vaccine he might get.
“Absolutely nothing,” Vernadore replied when asked if he felt anything after getting the shot. “It didn’t even hurt.”
Struggles to be heard
All three men said they initially struggled to figure out how to get vaccinated at all. Currently, there is only one primary way to get vaccinated, by calling the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control’s CARE Line at 1-855-472-3432.
Baltz said he first tried calling his doctor, who brushed him off, saying, “It’s just another virus” and nothing really to worry about. But Baltz was worried.
“I became very concerned right away. I thought to myself, ‘OK, here’s another virus that’s going to rear its head to the LGBTQ community,’” he said.
Baltz said he was “extremely frustrated” by his doctor’s response. He felt like his fears weren’t being taken seriously.
“I laughed it off in front of him, but I was very disappointed that he had that type of attitude,” Baltz said. “I was taken aback that somebody could be so ignorant, making that kind of a comment to a person who is in the LGBTQ community.”
He didn’t give up on pushing his doctor to find out more about the vaccine. His doctor sent him to CVS, but his pharmacist was of little help either. Eventually, he found out about the CARE Line and called. Within a few days, he had an appointment to get the vaccine.
“I feel sorry for other people who may come up against that and just shy away and not go any further themselves,” he said.
Baltz wasn’t alone. Vernadore said he was passed off from phone call to another until he finally found the right number, the health department CARE Line, and was able to get an appointment.
Even when he got the vaccine, he had a new problem — getting a second dose.
“They weren’t guaranteeing that they would even have the vaccine at my appointment” for the second dose, he said.
The Jynneos vaccine is meant to be a two-dose series, but because of limited vaccine supplies, major cities have been planning to give out just one dose, and South Carolina health officials have warned that they might need to stretch out the time frame on the second dose if they get close to running out.
The Tidelands Health hospital system said, as part of its preparation for dealing with monkeypox, it is training its employees to ensure that they can properly communicate information about the virus without making anyone seeking a vaccine or treatment feel uncomfortable.
“Even though the population that has been affected most is the LGBTQ population, anybody can get (the virus),” Tidelands Health infectious disease physician Jo-anne Klein said. “That’s really the bottom line.”
Many health experts fear that the slow rollout of monkeypox vaccines could allow infections to spread exponentially for some time.
So far, cases in South Carolina have been relatively few, though some experts worry that the virus’ spread is being severely undercounted because the rash often presents similar to red ant bites and not everyone knows what to look for.
Three hospital systems in the Pee Dee, where these three vaccine recipients live, say they feel prepared to fight the virus as soon as a case appears. McLeod Health, which focuses on the more rural parts of the Pee Dee, along with Tidelands Health and Grand Strand Medical Center, which cover the coastline, all said their experience with COVID-19 has helped prepare them and their staff for what it’s like to handle a new virus.
“It’s really a team approach. We have meetings with infection prevention, the clinicians both in the hospital and outpatient and other administrative personnel involved with the infusion center and the pharmacy and patient safety,” Tidelands’ Klein said. Meeting with all these groups ensures every possible contact point is covered. “We have been making the preparations that we have with COVID, for example, what to do when a patient presents in the emergency room or in a clinic.”
McLeod Health infectious disease doctor Ramesh Bharadwaj said his hospital system is taking a proactive approach with some of its patients.
“We are notifying patients who we feel are at risk and also letting them know where to get the vaccine,” he said.
Bharadwaj also said McLeod is taking care to be extra cautious and examine even minor rashes in case they could be monkeypox.
“Deepen your vigilance with any unexplained rash or symptoms and seek medical attention,” he said.
One problem Myrtle Beach could face, as a tourism destination, along with any of South Carolina’s tourism hotspots, is the increased risk travelers of bringing monkeypox into the community from other locales.
“I think that we’re actually more prepared because we have a high tourist population,” Grand Strand Medical Center Infection Prevention Director Mary Scott said. Frequently, Grand Strand would find itself dealing with a disproportionate number of COVID-19 patients compared to the general population of the region, she said. “I feel real confident that we’ll handle anything that comes our way after that, because, trust me, nothing was like COVID — ever.”
Scott said Grand Strand Medical Center has already had a couple “dry runs” when patients have come in with suspicious rashes.
“The E.R. did a fantastic job. They isolated the patient quickly and went through all the steps appropriately,” she said. “I think living through COVID has helped in a lot of ways. We learned a lot.”
Every person who gets vaccinated becomes one less way for the virus to spread, health experts say. But for those who do need treatment, support is available.
“It is not as transmissible as as COVID or as fatal as smallpox, even if they are in the same virus family,” Klein said. “We are prepared and closely coordinating with DHEC regarding every step that we need to manage, from diagnosis to treatment to prevention. And we just want to reassure the public that we are preparing, and there’s certainly no need to panic.”
A third Myrtle Beach man who got the vaccine said he fears social and professional consequences if too many people know he got it.
He requested to remain anonymous because he has clients who he worries might discontinue business if they found out about his life and sexuality.
Getting vaccinated, and sharing that publicly, would very likely out him. Right now, monkeypox is largely affecting gay and bisexual men, despite being able to infect anyone. And vaccines are being given exclusively to people exposed to the virus and queer people who have had sex with multiple men in the last 14 days.
Even with his own fears of being outed, he still had hope that the the public would treat this virus differently than HIV.
“Hopefully it’s not going to be as stigmatized, and hopefully it’s not going to be as bad,” he said. “I think that there’s a lot more people who are enlightened these days. There certainly seems to be a lot more tolerance now.”
Baltz, too, has struggled with how monkeypox is affecting his life. While he hasn’t gotten the virus itself, he said the virus is making him feel isolated. He only recently reentered Myrtle Beach’s LGBTQ+ social circles after being in a relationship for two and a half years.
“That put me out in the playing field again,” he said. “I knew I was going to be trying to meet new people,” which put him frequent, direct contact with people he didn’t know and couldn’t necessarily rely on to be safe.
Vernadore thought about the political consequences when it comes to monkeypox.
“It’s not fun because, especially right now, Republicans love to hate us, and I’m sure they’re going to town about this,” he said. “Among other things.”