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Jeffrey Galaise knew something was wrong. “I had fatigue, achiness, low-grade fever, swollen glands, a headache, a little bit of a cough and an overall dizzy, lethargic feeling,” said the longtime Hell’s Kitchen resident, who was unsure if they were a cold, flu or monkeypox.
Galaise had been trying to get the monkeypox vaccine for weeks, navigating the city’s unreliable online appointment system. “I had an appointment in June, but had to cancel after contracting COVID,” he said. Galaise managed to get the vaccine just as he was beginning to feel off, but it was too late. Though he suspected he might have contracted monkeypox, it would be a long, frustrating struggle before he could receive a proper diagnosis and treatment.
As monkeypox cases surge across Hell’s Kitchen and Manhattan at large, complaints over a slow rollout of vaccines, testing and treatment have increased, many saying the recent lessons of the COVID-19 pandemic have not been learned.
“I think that the Department of Health is not prepared,” said Dr Vino Palli, an ER doctor who has been at the front lines of COVID-19 and monkeypox. Dr Palli and his team at the MiDoctor Urgent Care clinic on 9th Avenue have been faced with a massive influx of patients reporting symptoms, but have been “put in a position where we’re not able to really provide the best care for these patients, because we haven’t been given any resources by the city,” said Dr Palli.
Despite the efforts his clinic has made to create their own testing kits to send out for official review, the screening process required by the city for further testing leaves “four out of five patients rejected from getting an official diagnosis for not having severe enough symptoms – which I think is outrageous,” said Dr Palli. “When they reject patients for testing, they’re missing cases. You can’t arbitrarily look at some photograph and say, ‘this is not monkeypox’ – that’s not science.”
For Jeffrey Galaise, the journey to get an official diagnosis and treatment mirrored the nightmare that Dr Palli describes. “I went to MiDoctor, who have always been very helpful, and they confirmed that they couldn’t test me for monkeypox without any lesions, which I didn’t have at the time. They were able to test me for everything else, and I tested negative for COVID-19, the flu and strep.” After several more days, a spiking fever and the appearance of lesions, Galaise was able to get an official monkeypox test from his primary care physician.
Even then, there was another hurdle: “My primary care physician told me that based on the what he saw in the lesions, my case was going to be severe, and he wanted me to go on the clinical trial TPOXX (an antiviral previously used for smallpox and currently in the process of FDA approval for monkeypox), but only certain hospitals and doctors are able to administer it.” Galaise’s primary care physician contacted a colleague at NYU Langone who admitted Galaise to the trial – but they were only able to get him the needed medicine days after his appointment, when his symptoms had significantly worsened.
“By the Saturday I was able to get TPOXX, I had 65 lesions all over my body,” said Galaise. “If I had gotten the medication on the day I saw my doctor, I don’t know how it would have progressed, but I would assume that it wouldn’t have progressed as much as it did.”
Speaking to W42ST, Dr Palli expressed frustration at the city’s lack of preemptive response to the early appearances of monkeypox in the area. “I reached out to the New York City Health department almost a month ago, asking — since we are in Hell’s Kitchen – if we could be a clinic where we could provide vaccines for monkeypox, if we could get some testing kits so we can increase the capacity to test. They said that they would not be able to,” said Dr Palli.
“They said they don’t have resources. At this point the city needs to ramp up and get their act together to designate clinics for monkeypox testing, monkeypox vaccines and treatment,” he added. “What we have now from the city is an extremely poor way of managing monkeypox – we are the epicenter in the country.”
“We need a coordinated response,” added Galaise, who said that while his “experience getting treatment was probably much easier than some,” he hoped clear testing and treatment policies would be made more accessible for everyone.
Ahead of Mayor Adams declaring the virus a citywide state of emergency on Saturday, elected officials representing Hell’s Kitchen released a statement to demand additional action at the city and state levels.
The notice, signed by NYS Senator Brad Hoylman, Congressman Jerry Nadler, NYS Assemblymember Deborah Glick, NYS Assembly Health Chair Dick Gottfried, NYS Assemblymember Linda Rosenthal and Council Member Erik Bottcher read: “New York State and New York City should each act now. The NYS Department of Health declaration of Imminent Threat to Public Health was an important and necessary, but not sufficient, step in recognizing and combating the seriousness of the virus. A state and local declaration of emergency will help facilitate disaster response efforts by cutting the red tape standing in the way of effective and speedy distribution of testing, treatment, and vaccines.”
Expedited and revised vaccine, testing and treatment processes, they argued, are vital to curb the spread of the virus. Federal officials were recently criticized for waiting to send out a shipment of over 300,000 vaccines from a Denmark storage facility until cases in the US rose exponentially. An estimated 800,000 additional doses of monkeypox vaccine will reportedly be released by the FDA, though it was unclear when they would become available locally.
The slow vaccine rollout, plus misconceptions that monkeypox is an STD, have increased unease that the disease – which is primarily spread through close contact – could be wielded against the LGBTQIA+ population in the same ways as during the early days of the AIDS pandemic, or to further fuel the fire of anti-trans and anti-LGBTQIA+ legislation from Republican lawmakers.
“Monkeypox is not exclusive to the LGBTQ+ community, but the cases are currently being diagnosed largely among men who have sex with men,” said Sophie Nurani, Assistant Director for Community Health at Ryan Chelsea-Clinton Community Health Center on 10th Avenue.
“Historically we have seen the way the medical community responds to infectious diseases in the gay community. People are being dismissed and turned away across the city, so it was clear to me that RCC needed to step up and play a role,” she added. “The amount of work it takes to make such a small dent in the outbreak is disheartening, and what would really be helpful is if more outpatient practices would make themselves available for testing, treatment, and vaccination – sooner than later.”
For Galaise, it’s meant fighting both monkeypox and its stigma while isolating in recovery. “I started to become very public about my experience, because I felt like nobody had answers, and I needed people to talk to,” he said. “I started posting on social media and looking for support groups, but I couldn’t find anything — so I started a Zoom support group. I’m not a therapist, and I’m not a doctor, but it helps to talk to other people going through this and share strategies. I’m not sure what will happen once I go back to work — but for now we meet daily and it’s been really helpful.”