Essay: The reality of getting the monkeypox vaccine

Two weeks ago, I received one of the District’s more than 20,000 doses of Jyennos monkeypox vaccine. D.C. has received the ninth highest number of vaccines in the United States with 24,175 doses shipped to the city as of Aug. 29. Because I am not a man who has sex with other men, I did not think that I would qualify for the vaccine. But after further research, I found out that those who qualify for the monkeypox vaccine in D.C. include people of any gender and sexual orientation who have had more than one sexual partner in the past two weeks, sex workers or staff members “at establishments where sexual activity occurs.” I was excited to play my part in preventing the monkeypox disease, but getting my first dose of the vaccine was an uncomfortable experience, both emotionally and physically.

Before my appointment, I assumed only gay men had access to the vaccine because of homophobic language surrounding the spread of monkeypox. To prevent other people from believing in the same misinformation, it is vital to avoid stigmas and stereotypes that fuel lies instead of slowing the disease, like blaming monkeypox on gay men. Other people like myself may qualify for the monkeypox vaccine but do not know it. While I am very thankful to qualify and receive the vaccine, I was misgendered several times at the appointment and continue to wait out longer-than-expected side effects, which made my whole experience unenjoyable altogether.

The first disappointment came when I got immediately misgendered while walking into the monkeypox vaccination site. My heart dropped into my stomach. “Can we see verification of your appointment ladies,” the police officer said in front of the D.C. Department of Health building. After showing them my QR code, the officer showed me to a waiting room full of chairs where the volunteers and doctors began to add “ma’am” to every phrase directed at me. Because monkeypox is mostly reported among men who have sex with other men in the United States, I thought I would be surrounded by a queer community that understood my non-binary identity. Healthcare establishments are typically stressful to me because of the heteronormativity that seeps through them. It is impossible to go to the doctor without discussing my queer identity because of questions about sexual activity and discussions about my body. I found myself in a similar situation at the monkeypox vaccination site, which felt unsafe, unwelcome and overwhelming.

Even after disclosing my gender identity and use of gender-neutral pronouns on the forms that all patients fill out, the staff working at the vaccination site continued to misgender me. Being misgendered is exhausting because it is a constant self reminder that society categorizes me as a woman before anything else. Even when filling out the forms, I had to specify which gender I was assigned at birth, and while that information is necessary, it still stings to repeatedly be considered female. Getting my monkeypox vaccine showed me how even in predominantly queer spaces, LGBTQ+ people are still misunderstood and discriminated against. But nothing will change the fact that I got misgendered. Instead, my desire to practice safe sex and protect others from the spread of monkeypox outweighed the discomfort.

When the time came to receive the dose, confusion and panic set in – the injection was the most painful vaccine that I have ever received. The Jynneos vaccine was injected through intradermal administration, a superficial injection that doesn’t reach the fat of the forearm as most vaccines do, creating a red, irritable lump right under the surface of the skin. The insertion itself was more painful than I anticipated. I was not prepared for the sheer discomfort that would come with the shot, making the physical side effects extra stressful.

Now two weeks out from vaccination, irritation from the shot has lingered. My forearm is still itchy, and the punctured patch of skin still hurts when touched – symptoms known to last up to a month. Other side effects include headaches, muscle pain, fatigue and nausea, which are all common with other vaccines as well, but the extended period of discomfort tied to the vaccine has been a first for me.

The initial and enduring pain and itching has definitely been manageable but also unexpected – uncertainty that has generated unnecessary panic that I was not prepared to handle. All people planning to receive the vaccine should know what to expect about the shot and its side effects well before getting it – not right before the needle enters their forearm. 

Ultimately, getting the vaccine and avoiding monkeypox was worth the experience, but I wish D.C. Health informed me better ahead of time. The department could have included videos or pictures to explain the vaccination process in emails they sent about my appointment. Health care professionals at the site should also communicate better about the experience and what it entails. I left the vaccination sight jarred in both an emotional and physical sense, not looking forward to returning in a month for my second shot. Since no one told me, I’ll tell you – be aware of misgendering and lack of queer knowledge at D.C. Health. The injection might also hurt, and side effects can last up to a month.

Here’s to a second dose that goes better than the first.

Riley Goodfellow, a sophomore majoring in political science, is the contributing opinions editor.

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