A bottle of monkeypox vaccine Credit: Richard Vogel / AP Photo

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Philly’s Health Department has finally released demographic information around monkeypox cases and vaccine distribution. The data confirms fears Philadelphians expressed to Billy Penn two weeks ago: Most of the cases are affecting people of color, but most of the vaccine doses are going to white people.

Of the 203 total monkeypox cases reported in Philadelphia, 55% were diagnosed in Black people and 14% in Hispanic or Latino people.

Even though they make up a majority of cases, Black people received less than a quarter of the 3,909 vaccine doses administered in Philadelphia to date. About 1 in 10 doses were given to Hispanic and Latino people.

Meanwhile, white people were overrepresented in vaccinations. With 27% of the reported monkeypox cases, they received 57% of the total 3,909 doses administered.

“Honestly, it hurts,” said Sebrina Tate, the executive director of Bebashi, a social services nonprofit born out of the HIV/AIDS epidemic that serves mostly people of color. “We see these health disparities along so many diagnoses, so it’s not surprising. But each time there’s something else, it’s more and more painful as a representative in the health field, but also as a Black woman.”

When a Billy Penn reporter requested this data earlier this month, the Health Department declined — claiming the nearly 2,000 doses administered by that point was too low to show statistical significance, and that the data could compromise patients’ identities. Medical experts disagreed with that line of thinking.

Since then, activist groups like Black and Latinx Community Control of Health and ACT UP Philadelphia met with Health Department officials to request a more equitable rollout. They too asked the department to release demographic data, as well as info about the disease in multiple languages.

Though the Health Department is now publishing the data on a dashboard they promise will be updated weekly each Monday, officials say they can’t yet explain the disparity in vaccinations.

“There is still no definitive reason why Black and brown Philadelphians have been diagnosed at a higher than expected rate,” said spokesperson Matthew Rankin. “This virus is currently spreading through social networks, so those are the networks that are being affected at this time.”

Before the racial disparity was confirmed by the data, it was a rumor that had been heard by providers, nurses, and health experts, as well as witnessed anecdotally by patients who have visited clinics. Medical professionals worried the situation would be a repeat of COVID — when the early doses of the vaccine went mostly to white residents.

“One of my friends went to go get it and they were just like, ‘There’s not a lot of people of color in these lines,’” Marquise Richards, a Black man and a teacher from North Philly, told Billy Penn earlier this month. “So we were wondering, what does access look like for the Black community? A lot of them are just like, we can’t even get an appointment because they said there’s no more or it’s filled up.”

Monkeypox is rarely fatal. But it can bring on a slew of painful symptoms, like fever, sore throat and painful lesions all over the body. Once you’re diagnosed, the quarantine can last up to four weeks.

When the current outbreak first started spreading in the U.S. earlier this summer, it mostly infected white patients. Since then, the CDC reported that the number of monkeypox cases has decreased in white and Hispanic people, but continued to increase among Black people.

Spokesperson Rankin said the Philadelphia Health Department is working on equity, and that department employees have reached out to Philly Black Pride to help them schedule appointments. But it’ll be even more challenging to improve distribution now — since the FDA slashed the number of doses it plans to give the city from 3,600 to 700.

“The drop in doses that Philadelphia can order is a grave threat to vaccine equity,” Rankin said. “This makes developing partnerships and placing vaccines extremely difficult.”

A recommendation from Tate, of Bebashi: Lean on partnerships with community organizations, since they’ve already earned the trust of their patients.

She’s already seen that strategy work. Her org started to receive doses of the monkeypox vaccine about a week and a half ago. Since then, it has held two clinics at the Spring Garden location.

“People showing up at our clinic are Black men,” Tate said, estimating they made up 85% of patients Bebashi has served so far. “And they want the vaccine.”

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Michaela Winberg

Michaela Winberg is a general assignment reporter at Billy Penn. She covers LGBTQ people and culture, public spaces, and transportation and mobility. She also sometimes produces radio and web features...