Clint Hopkins and his husband, Joel Hockman, own Pucci’s Pharmacy in Sacramento, but you might not always find them there. Since the monkeypox outbreak began in the U.S., the pair and their team of health professionals are just as likely to be at a bar, private party, or their local LGBTQ center administering monkeypox vaccines.
“We’re in a bit of a unique situation, because we’re LGBT and part of the community that is at highest risk,” says Hockman, COO of Pucci’s. “We’re aware of social events that are going on through our social network, so we reached out and said, ‘Hey, we know you’re going to get together—let us come and vaccinate everybody while they’re there.”
The vaccine to prevent monkeypox, called Jynneos, can protect people from getting infected before they are exposed to the virus. The latest outbreak has spread quickly among people in LGBTQ communities in the U.S. and several countries, after people were potentially exposed at large gatherings. But vaccines don’t always reach this high-risk group because of stigma. Some people are concerned about being identified as LGBTQ, while others prefer not to reveal their sexual orientation to employers, friends, or family, which could happen if they were seen at a testing site or in a line at a public health clinic to receive a monkeypox vaccine. Hopkins and his team are trying to eliminate these barriers. After procuring doses from the Sacramento public health department, they started offering monkeypox vaccines not only at their pharmacy, but also at popular LGBTQ bars in the area and at a weekly social gathering of at the home of friends; at the first such get-together, 75 people got vaccinated. “We gave doses to people who otherwise might not have come in for vaccination,” says Hopkins.
That’s where Rick Russell got his first dose in July. “It was pretty awesome and pretty amazing,” says Russell, a retired Navy firefighter and recruiter, who is now an analyst with the California Military Department. “They gave 75 vaccinations to individuals who otherwise had no other way or means of idea about how to get vaccinated. What they are doing for the community here in Sacramento—there’s nobody else who has ever done anything like that.”
Word of their pop-up monkeypox vaccine clinics has spread all the way to neighboring Nevada, and people are making the two-hour drive to Sacramento to get vaccinated. “Nobody has looked out for the community like they have, and they’re doing it just because they’re a part of our community,” Russell says.
Read More: What It Really Feels Like To Have Monkeypox
Pucci’s Pharmacy has a legacy of serving the underserved in its community. In 2016, Hopkins and Hockman purchased the business from Tom Nelson, who was one of the few pharmacists in the area filling prescriptions for new anti-HIV medications during the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s, which became life-changing therapies for people living with HIV. Hopkins and Hockman have long offered HIV testing at the pharmacy and prescribe PrEP, which can protect people from getting infected or seriously ill from HIV, for people who are at high risk of exposure to the virus.
When COVID-19 hit, Hopkins reached out to the county health department and offered to help with mass vaccination campaigns. And when the first monkeypox cases began to appear, the county reached out to him to help administer the doses. “We said, ‘Absolutely, this is our community,’” says Hopkins. “Not only is it our local community in Sacramento that we’re helping, but as LGBT owners, it’s our broader community that the virus was affecting the most. It was very important for us to get out ahead of it.”
The duo’s nomadic vaccination clinics have grown so popular that they consume their days, nights, and weekends. At a recent clinic at the Sacramento LGBTQ Center on one Saturday in August, Hopkins’ team vaccinated 309 people. So far, his team has administered more than half of the monkeypox vaccine doses allotted to Sacramento County.
While Hopkins and Hockman were reimbursed for administered COVID-19 vaccines and therapies, however, that source of financial support does not exist for the monkeypox shots, they say. Unlike with COVID-19 shots, the government is not reimbursing for the monkeypox vaccine, which requires two doses. The few insurers that do cover the shots only pay $19 per dose, which does not cover the cost of the staff and equipment required to administer them, Hopkins says. “That’s less than half the amount that was paid for COVID-19 vaccines, and there is no fund for uninsured patients.” He also points out that because of the stigma surrounding monkeypox, some people don’t want to provide their health insurance information because they don’t want their employer, family, or significant other to find out they got the monkeypox vaccine. That means that in some cases, they are providing the vaccines for free. “We need a fund to pay for those patients to be vaccinated in order to protect them,” he says. Hopkins says he still has not been reimbursed for any of the monkeypox vaccines he has administered.
For now, “we’re doing this for charity,” says Hopkins. “But in a lot of other communities, they don’t have a pharmacy like ours that’s owned by LGBT owners who are concerned about taking care of their community.”
Hopkins’ and Hockman are serving as examples, however, for other communities and even the federal government. In August, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said during a briefing that the agency was planning to offer monkeypox vaccines at upcoming pride events in order to make access and administration of the shots easier for at-risk communities.
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