“The monkeypox virus. The outbreak.”
“Well, I’m embarrassed to tell you, I don’t even know that,” Inhofe, who’s retiring, admitted.
Inhofe’s likely not alone. The word ‘monkeypox’ itself, terrible as it may be, has been said just seven times in Senate floor debates throughout the entire 117th Congress, according to the Congressional Record (with an assist from a friendly Senate librarian, who also helpfully included ‘monkey pox’ and other variations in their search).
Moreso, only five senators account for the seven mentions, because GOP Sens. Mike Braun of Indiana and John Cornyn of Texas both said the word twice. They’re joined by Sens. Richard Burr (R-NC), Cory Booker (D-NJ), and Sherrod Brown (D-OH).
SOURCE: Congress.gov search of the Federal Record for mentions of “monkeypox” during Senate floor debate so far in the 117th Congress.
On the House floor, of its 435 voting members, the name of the viral disease that has now inflicted people in all 50 states and Washington, D.C. has only been uttered eight times during debates throughout the entire 117th Congress.
Those afflicted with the debilitating virus aren’t looking for lip service. They’re looking for resources for their communities.
Even so, that lack of federal attention is being felt nationwide. Overworked, and often underpaid, healthcare workers and public health officials are nervous about what lies ahead now that Republicans blocked President Biden’s most recent request for roughly $4.5 billion to combat the virus. Many LGTQ+ advocates say this year’s outbreak – witnessed mostly amongst men who have sex with men, even as the disease is not at all confined to gay men – spotlights how far the struggle for equality has yet to go.
“Our rights, our access, our identities, our health care – we’re looking at those things and saying, ‘These are not done.’ These hard-fought battles that we thought had been put to bed are not finished,” Wil Bryant, director of the Atlanta Pride Committee, told Raw Story in a phone interview this week. “But for a lot of people, they didn’t realize it. I think this brings it back to life.”
The lack of a robust and sustained federal response allowed misinformation and confusion to take root amongst local health officials in the spring, which morphed into mistrust in some communities, anger in others.
“I think there’s a lot of fear,” Bryant said. “People are still pretty anxious about it.”
Anxiety is a natural response to what many have reported is the most pain they’ve ever endured. Rashes, blisters, anal pain, sores, and anal discharge are some symptoms of the virus. It’s also leaving many bodies scarred.
Republicans vs Biden
Back in May, the first case in this U.S. monkeypox outbreak (there was also a 2003 outbreak, which the CDC reports they contained to 47 people) was identified in Massachusetts. Then a handful of major urban centers started seeing cases. After 661 cases were reported on Aug. 1 alone, Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Xavier Becerra declared the virus a Public Health Emergency.
Just about a month to the day later, President Biden asked Congress to send his administration more than $47 billion in emergency funding for the war in Ukraine, COVID-19, and the smallest tranche, $4.5 billion, for monkeypox. Republicans dismissed the president’s request for additional health funding from the outset.
“I think they’re asking for too much money without enough information as to how they’re going to use it,” Sen. Roy Blunt (R-MO), a member of Mitch McConnell’s GOP leadership team, told reporters at the Capitol recently. “If it was a billion dollars, I think they’d be much more likely to be able to come up with a logical, reasonable-sounding plan of what they’re going to do with that billion dollars.”
That’s not what Democratic leaders report hearing back from their GOP counterparts.
Those requests for funding “were rejected out of hand by McConnell and [House Minority Leader Kevin] McCarthy,” according to Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s deputy chief of staff, Drew Hammill.
That GOP red line basically quashed all debate on funding for the two viruses literally plaguing America.
“We’ve just gone through a very trying pandemic – we’re not done with that one yet, with COVID – but I think we’ve learned a lot that should be applied to monkeypox,” Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-WI) told Raw Story over the summer.
Before leaving town ahead of the midterms, Congress punted a short-term spending bill – the one that everted a partial government shutdown last week – to get the nation through the election. When they return, Baldwin’s optimistic her party can convince Republicans to accept some virus funding in the next round of negotiations, but she’s not happy with the delay.
“It’s frustrating,” Baldwin told Raw Story last week. “Absolutely.”
Last month, CDC Director Rochelle Walensky testified before the Senate Health Education Labor and Pensions (or HELP) Committee, which Baldwin sits on. She focused her questions on America’s footing going forward.
“Monkeypox is all too reminiscent of our initial response to HIV AIDS,” Baldwin told Walensky before she asked her about the agency’s efforts to reach out to LGBTQ+ people.
“Thank you, senator, for that question. Their involvement and integration into our response has been critical,” Walensky answered. “One of the first thing that we did when we heard about the (first) case on May 17 was outreach between our smallpox branch and our HIV branch, because we knew that it was both those communities, both those scientists that were going to need to come together to make a robust response. We’ve had extraordinary outreach with the LGBTQ community.”
That’s not how advocates and health officials from almost all corners of the nation put it.
“Of course, like anybody else all over the country, we were hoping for a stronger, more rapid response from the administration,” Omar Martinez Gonzalez, the senior manager at AIDS Foundation Chicago, told Raw Story over the phone this week. “Fortunately, you know, we’ve been able to kind of shore up some of those deficits through our outreach and connecting folks to resources.”
The response from the CDC and other federal agencies improved, but not without a lot of nudging and prodding.
“It did get better. It definitely took a lot of pushing from our communities to make sure that we were getting accurate information in our respective communities,” Gonzalez said. “Initially, you know, there was a lack of clarity.”
Now, as infection rates are going down according to the CDC, there’s also been noticeable shifts in the trends. That has vulnerable minority groups bracing, once again.
“What’s really been concerning for me personally, has been really seeing how the trends have changed even though numbers are going down,” Gonzalez said. “When you look at the data itself, we’re noticing that more Black and Latinx people are being disproportionately impacted by the monkeypox virus. Initially, it started with affecting mostly white gay men, and then the trends since the beginning have started to kind of shift towards people of color.”
Gonzalez, along with every other LGBTQ+ person Raw Story interviewed, also emphatically noted a PSA: Even though federal and local health officials fumbled their response and messaging in the beginning, monkeypox is in no way confined to just one group of Americans.
“We know it can affect anyone. We saw it with HIV in the eighties. Pretty dangerous,” Gonzalez said. “People aren’t dying, but they’re being impacted in other ways.”
The outbreak is occurring in tandem with COVID, even as the opioid crisis rages, and record numbers of healthcare workers have left or are preparing to leave the field. One survey this year showed as many as 47% of healthcare workers plan to switch professions in the next three years.
“That’s one of the reasons why we’re so concerned with the lack of action from Congress to fund the monkeypox response, because we need to implement more education in the community to get people to access the resources that are available, and we need to definitely pay our providers to be able to continue to sustain this work,” Gonzalez said. “Our systems are stretched thin.”
Stigma still hovering over the LQBTQ+ community
The slow response wasn’t merely due to an overtaxed healthcare system. Critics say it revealed the harmful and pervasive stigma that many in the medical field assign to LGBTQ+ patients.
“The public health agencies were embarrassed about discussing it, because they didn’t want to ‘give a stigma to those having gay relations,’” Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-LA) told Raw Story at the Capitol in September. “I think that was an incredible disservice to patients. Incredible disservice.”
While Cassidy is opposed to the bipartisan Senate measure to protect same-sex marriages (he dismissed it to CNN as a “silly messaging bill”), the Louisiana senator says he’s also trained as a physician.
“I’m a doc. I don’t care what your life is. You’re sick, I want to take care of you,” Cassidy said. “They seem to think, ‘Oh, we can’t talk about it, because we may stigmatize some people so we just can’t talk about it,’ even though, it’s a net negative to not talk about it.”
The Republican’s critique rings true to many advocates – many who also accuse the nation’s media of helping perpetuate the stigma.
“I think it’s likely true. I think for a lot of people sex is an uncomfortable conversation, especially when it’s between LGBTQ+ people,” Bryant – of the Atlanta Pride Committee – told Raw Story. “There’s still a stigma around seeing LGBTQ+ people in their full diversity, allowing them to be full people. Understanding that they do have sexual connections, and having those discussions is uncomfortable still for a lot of people. So when you talk about your evening news or your local public health officials, some of them aren’t well educated still unfortunately.”
While Biden’s Democratic allies in Congress recognize the funding constraints placed on the president and his team, they also fear the nation is being handcuffed when it comes to preparing for the future.
“The administration seems to get it. They’re asking for the money and the resources. We should know, as a society where infectious disease is a going to be a continued, ongoing major threat, especially as we’re seeing disruptions in our food systems, disruptions in certain species,” Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) told Raw Story while riding an elevator in the Capitol recently. “So I just think that we need to start putting more public health infrastructure in place that can deal with infectious diseases.”
Like many scientists, Booker predicted there will be an increase in pandemics and other infectious diseases as a result of our warming and thus rapidly evolving planet.
“We are in danger as a species of more infectious diseases, but we’re not putting the public health infrastructure in place,” Booker said. “America should be prepared. Not responsive, but proactive.”
See no evil, fund no prevention
There’s been another troubling trend. Unlike in other nations, science in America became overtly politicized in recent years. Under former President Donald Trump, climate skepticism transformed into pandemic denial. That was on full display with COVID-19 masking and vaccine mandates, but it’s spread to other vital areas of public health. No one wants the Senate, let alone an evenly divided one, making life and death choices for them, but advocates say the lives of many in the LGBTQ+ community are being held hostage by Republicans in Congress these days.
“The results of not funding public health is politicizing things, like who deserves to live and die; moralizing people’s behavior, rather than treating people as whole persons,” Jen Laws, the president & CEO of the Community Access National Network, told Raw Story in a phone interview this week. “We cannot separate these things as much as we’d like to. So I think we have to confront that on a societal level. Unfortunately, every time we try to it’s at a crisis point.”
Even as, historically, the World Health Organization has reported a 3-6% death rate globally, this outbreak in the U.S. has only resulted in two tragic deaths.
Still, as of our last check, there have been 26,049 reported cases so far in the U.S. Advocates fear those numbers are low, in part, because the federal government stumbled initially but also because funding remains blocked. With patients facing the loss of up to four weeks of wages if they contract the virus, many hourly workers have reportedly worked through the painful lesions just so they can make rent and groceries.
Without robust funding for testing and tracking monkeypox, there’s fear the numbers are off. That, paradoxically enough, also seems to have given Congress a pass.
“We’ve been flying blind, and it’s really important to understand that we cannot address things that we were blind to,” Laws said. “Most of the time, when we are not able to collect data on these things – when we’re not able to gather data and present it – then the enjoyment the Congress has is to pretend it doesn’t exist.”
The other elephant in the room is that, as the nation learned during COVID lockdowns, viruses know no borders. With Republicans on Capitol Hill refusing to fund this ongoing monkeypox outbreak on U.S. soil, there’s fear that American scientists will be constrained in their traditional roles as global public health leaders.
“We have to talk about not just domestic funding, but global funding and really building up the human infrastructure necessary to combat these epidemics,” Laws told Raw Story, “because I am of the firm belief that monkeypox will become endemic in the U.S. as a result of our negligence.”