Martise Harper has seen at least three Houston Health Department mobile vaccination clinics administering mpox vaccines within the last month — a stark contrast to what he recalls last summer at the onset of the outbreak, when he most needed one.
After contracting the virus formerly known as monkeypox in May 2022, he had spent four consecutive days constantly calling 311 and Harris County Public Health to locate a vaccine and see how soon he could get one. But he had no luck getting answers. He was put on long holds several times, and when he asked for a supervisor, no one returned his calls.
“It sounded like nobody knew anything … or were being very, very secretive,” Harper said. “But it was just like going in circles. … I don’t know what the situation was behind that but I was just bewildered.”
The health department’s absence in the community, its inconsistent direction and shortages of shots at the onset of the outbreak in May of last year, as reported by the Houston Chronicle, left many vulnerable Houstonians like Harper, a Black gay man, struggling to get a vaccine. The mpox outbreak also had disproportionate effects on communities of color.
The health department’s narrow eligibility requirements, which initially targeted only men who have sex with men, specifically those with a confirmed exposure or multiple sex partners, also created barriers for those who were exposed and didn’t fall into those parameters.
But this summer, the Houston Health Department is expanding its eligibility and ramping up its outreach by taking a more visible approach.
The city is providing free vaccines and health education across Houston, particularly at a number of Pride events. Although it’s not a new approach, it’s something that the department shied away from in recent years due to the pandemic, health officials say. They primarily offered vaccines at one of four clinics.
“We’re just trying to reignite our commitment to the community and be present,” said Robert Sealy, an assistant director at the Houston Health Department. “We have a saying that you have to go where the people are if you want to help.”
So far, those places included The Montrose Center’s Community Pride Bash on June 17 and the second annual Families with Pride event held at Levy Park on Saturday. The department will continue to provide vaccines Tuesday at McGregor Park in partnership with Third Ward nonprofit Civic Heart from 4 to 8 p.m. and a community health expo at 5807 Little York Road from 4 to 8 p.m., Niko Niko’s at 2520 Montrose Blvd, and every Thursday from 6 to 9 p.m. through July 13 at Protect the H Night at 2111 Fannin St.
In addition to mpox vaccines, the department is also offering COVID, hepatitis A and meningitis vaccines.
‘Going in circles’
Mpox is a rare disease caused by a virus in the same family as smallpox that spreads from person to person through close, personal, often skin-to-skin contact and sexual contact.
People with mpox often get a rash on their hands, feet, chest, face, mouth or genital area, which can initially look like pimples or blisters and may be painful or itchy. Throughout the three-week incubation period, the rash can go through several stages, including scabs, before healing, according to the Houston Health Department.
Other symptoms include flu-like illness such as fever, headache, muscle aches, backache, chills, exhaustion and swollen lymph nodes.
People need two doses of the vaccine for the best protection against mpox. The CDC suggests that people get the second dose four weeks after the first one.
When Harper was infected, he struggled with severe backaches and developed blisters around his genitals and on his shoulder. At one point, the pain became so unbearable he could hardly move.
“I was going in circles about how (to) get a vaccination and I just said forget it,” Harper said.
He sought emergency care and spent 12 days hospitalized at HCA Houston Healthcare Medical Center, where he received a myriad of antibiotics. But ultimately, the treatment didn’t solve the problem. He still needed a vaccine.
He turned to Ian Haddock, the executive director of The Normal Anomaly Initiative and someone he considers a son. Haddock, who has experience with the Harris County Public Health department after a brief stint working in their HIV prevention program, made a quick phone call and Harper had an appointment that same day.
While he was grateful to have finally secured an appointment, he couldn’t help but wonder: “Do I really have to be keyed into the community in order for me to get treated?”
Houston Health spokesperson Porfirio Villarreal said the community’s concern about the lack of access to mpox vaccines last year was understandable. But the city had to prioritize vaccinations for the most vulnerable populations because of shortages.
The U.S. recorded more than 30,000 mpox cases since the onset of the outbreak in May 2022, with 43 total deaths, according to CDC data. At the time, it was known as monkeypox, but the World Health Organization changed the name to mpox to avoid racist stereotypes about the disease.
Texas has the third highest mpox cases as of Wednesday, with more than 3,000 cases and Harris County had a total of 959 cases as of June 19, Harris County Public Health data shows, with a disproportionate effect on communities of color.
Black Houstonians accounted for roughly 40 percent of mpox cases, while Hispanics accounted for nearly 33 percent.
But now the department is confident it can protect the health of more people, noting it has an ample supply of vaccines and can order a new shipment from the state if needed.
City health officials received a total of 14,084 mpox vaccines from the federal government, 4,226 of which they provided to Harris County Public Health, Villarreal said.
“We could potentially vaccinate the entire at-risk population,” Sealy said. “Anyone who feels like they’re at risk for mpox that wants to get vaccinated should have no trouble getting the vaccinated.”
Officials have also loosened eligibility requirements, Sealy said, no longer requiring folks to tell them how they met the eligibility criteria.
“At a certain point, we decided that was prohibitive to the work we wanted to do,” he said.
Harper wishes he could have had access to the resources and mobile clinics that are available now. They would have saved him stress and confusion.
“I would have been the first one to the truck,” Harper said.
Aside from Pride events, those seeking a mpox vaccine can contact the Houston Health Department to schedule an appointment at (832) 393-4220 or enter your ZIP code in the CDC’s vaccine locator tool.