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Mpox Could Surge Again in Georgia, Community Leaders Warn

There’s been little spread of mpox in 2023, but community leaders warn that more people need to be vaccinated to avoid a resurgence of cases.

A health worker wearing gloves holds a test sample tubes labeled 'Monkeypox'.

Black community leaders who were on the front lines of Georgia’s mpox response are heeding the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s warning about a possible resurgence. The CDC released a health alert on May 15, warning that mpox, formerly known as monkeypox, could resurface in drastic numbers as people gather for summer festivities. 

The warning followed news of a cluster of cases confirmed in Chicago, a hotspot for the disease early in last year’s outbreak, which disproportionately affected gay Black men. Most of the 12 men who tested positive for mpox were fully vaccinated against it, and none were hospitalized. 

But public health advocates in the Atlanta area said the cases should serve as a reminder that while community spread has decreased drastically, the mpox outbreak isn’t over. 

Daniel Driffin is a public health consultant who served as the mpox coordinator for the National Minority AIDS Council during the mpox global emergency. Since Georgia is a state that hasn’t expanded Medicaid, he worries public health officials won’t be prepared for a new outbreak. 

“We really could have a raging outbreak relatively quickly, especially if our public health officials or even community-based organization leaders think this is a thing of the past,” Driffin said. 

Four Georgia counties – Cobb, DeKalb, Fulton, and Gwinnett – were considered to have medium or low mpox vaccination levels, according to the CDC’s May 26 Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. In those four counties, about 53,000 men who have sex with men live in an area deemed at high risk for a recurrent mpox outbreak.

There hasn’t been much community spread of mpox this year in Georgia – just eight additional cases in 2023, according to the Georgia Department of Public Health. 

That doesn’t mean people shouldn’t still take precautions, especially as Pride events are coming in June and people gather for festivals in the summer. 

Justin Smith, the director of the Campaign to End AIDS at Positive Impact Health Centers, said it’s important for festival goers and people attending parties where they might be in close contact with others “to be prepared and to be able to enjoy themselves.” 

That means getting the mpox vaccine, which is a two-dose regimen. You can still get the vaccine at your local public health department. 

“If you’re in one of the groups that really could stand to benefit from it, go ahead and get that first shot,” Smith said.

Last year, Black gay men found themselves at the forefront of the mpox outbreak in the state. Georgia reached the fifth highest number of mpox cases last summer of all states, with 80% of those cases in Black men who have sex with men. Men living with HIV/AIDS were also overrepresented among mpox cases and more likely to suffer severe symptoms or death.

Inequities were clear as local public health departments urged people to get vaccinated early in the outbreak; Black men were bearing the brunt of the mpox outbreak but had relatively lower vaccination rates compared to white men. Public health officials had to get very specific in their outreach to try to even the playing field. Part of those efforts included reaching out to organizations like Positive Impact and A Vision 4 Hope that already had strong connections in the Black gay community. 

Jeffrey Roman, the director of programming at A Vision 4 Hope, an organization dedicated to LGBTQ health, says the fact that mpox fell out of the mainstream media so quickly is a little worrisome. 

“The thing about human nature is if you don’t present it as a problem or a potential risk, sometimes people don’t see it as that,” Roman said. “We never want to get to a point of fear, shaming and things like that. I think that we do need very proactive messaging around this.” 

Driffin says it’s important for health departments to be sure they’re being as intentional as they can to achieve equity should another wave of infections come. 

“If [health officials] aren’t prioritizing those who are traditionally left behind, it’ll be similar to last summer,” he warned. 

You can go to this link to register for an mpox vaccine at the Georgia Department of Public Health’s Website for COVID-19 and mpox vaccines.

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly identified Daniel Driffin’s role with the National Minority AIDS Council. Driffin served as the group’s mpox coordinator.