Participants march with the rainbow flag in the 2018 Atlanta Pride parade. (Photo by Darian Aaron)

Monkeypox (MPV) Vaccinations Front and Center as Atlanta Pride Returns from Hiatus

This article originally appeared on GLAAD’s blog and has been republished with permission.

After a two-year hiatus and a shift to virtual programming in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the two-day Atlanta Pride festival returns in person on October 8-9. Organizers are laser-focused on the health and safety of the anticipated 300,000+ LGBTQ people and allies expected to attend amid the ongoing threat of new COVID-19 acquisitions and the recent monkeypox (MPV) outbreak among gay and bisexual men. In partnership with the Fulton County Board of Health, Atlanta Pride will provide attendees access to a series of vaccines, including the two-dose JYNNEOS MPV vaccine.

With a recent national daily average of 107 new MPV cases as of September 28, diagnoses are on the decline nationally, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Health officials attribute vaccinations and behavioral changes among gay and bisexual men to declining cases. While attendees will be able to receive the MPV vaccine at the 12th Street entrance inside Atlanta’s Piedmont Park Visitor’s Center, peak immunity from the virus will not occur until two weeks after the second dose.

Atlanta Pride organizers have encouraged early vaccination among members of the LGBTQ community since the beginning of summer through a series of outreach efforts, including two English and Spanish language town halls.

“When we noticed that monkeypox was spreading, we certainly had a big concern, and we decided to go deep into organizing and education,” says Jamie Fergerson, executive director of the Atlanta Pride Committee.

Atlanta Pride’s first MPV town hall streamed in July, garnering over a thousand views and overwhelming interest from viewers across the country searching for accurate and culturally competent information about the virus. The Spanish language town hall followed in September.

“Early on, there just wasn’t a lot of good information. And a lot of the information that was getting out was either very clinical or somewhat stigmatizing,” she says.

Fergerson tells GLAAD that the vaccinations administered during Pride weekend are part of a supply allocated by The White House for high-risk communities and events. Fergerson also says that she and her team are intentional about Atlanta Pride not becoming the source of a super spreader event for COVID-19 and MPV.

“More than half of the people who attend our festival either don’t have insurance or are underinsured,” Fergerson says. “A lot of folks, particularly trans folks, and Black and brown folks, don’t have access to competent, high-quality healthcare,” she adds, pointing to the real-life implications behind the organization’s core values and the decision to go virtual the last two years.

Returning for the second dose 

Nearly 80% of MPV cases in Georgia have been diagnosed in Black men. The vaccine’s limited availability for this demographic at the height of the outbreak amplified existing racial and health disparities.

Dr. Melanie Thompson, MD, is a respected HIV physician and researcher based in Atlanta and presented the origins of MPV as a panelist during Atlanta Pride’s first town hall. Thompson believes more work should be done regarding health equity, but more urgently, increasing the number of gay and bisexual men receiving their second vaccine dose.

​​”The booster is really important. It does a disproportionate job of elevating the antibodies and increasing protection. One dose is not half as good,” Thompson says.

Of the 11,134 Black Georgians vaccinated for MPV, only 6,107 individuals returned for their second dose, according to the most recent data from the Georgia Department of Public Health.

“There was a huge surge in people clamoring for vaccination initially because monkeypox was new and scary and painful, and everybody really wanted to get vaccinated,” Thompson says. “And I think there has not been good communication and education about the importance of having that second dose.”

Mechele Miller is a board member of Atlanta-based H.Y.P.E. To Empower, a youth advocacy and HIV organization, and a Gilead Compass grant partner. Miller says she is hopeful the young adults their organization serves will complete the vaccine cycle.

“People are going to get that first shot and will likely get the second one because of attending our groups and knowing the facts,” she says. “They are thinking about it. And they weren’t at one point earlier in our conversations. We know they’re more open to it now, and a lot of it has to do with being able to talk continuously.”

Miller says many of the clients from H.Y.P.E. To Empower are planning to attend Atlanta Pride and are aware of the availability of the vaccine.

Given Atlanta Pride’s values, the focus on vaccine dissemination for MPV during the festival was a no-brainer. But Thompson warns that individuals who wait until the last minute to get vaccinated before attending a public event will not enjoy the immediate benefits of protection and should take precautions.

“It is important to get the vaccines, but you have to follow through, and you should assume that you don’t have immunity if you just got your vaccine or if you get your vaccine at a Pride event,” she says.

“The most effective things [high-risk groups for monkeypox] can do is reduce the number of sexual partners to people that you know something about in terms of their own sexual networks, Thompson says. “And anyone who has symptoms that could be monkeypox or Covid should stay home, abstain from sex, and don’t take the risk of exposing other people.”

Fergerson notes that Atlanta Pride’s vaccination efforts go beyond MPV throughout the weekend.

“At the festival, we’re also providing Covid testing, Covid vaccinations, and flu vaccines,” she says.

Thompson encourages attendees to add the available vaccinations to their Pride itinerary if they haven’t prioritized the shots before now.

“There’s no reason to wait to get a flu vaccine. You can get your flu and your monkeypox vaccine at the same time,” Thompson says, in addition to the vaccine for COVID-19.

“Let’s get our bodies primed for these infections,” Thompson says. “And hopefully, we can have a better fall and winter.”

Prior registration to receive the monkeypox (MPV) vaccine at the Piedmont Park Visitor’s Center during Atlanta Pride is not required.