Dr. Ward Carpenter, co-director of health services at the Los Angeles LGBT Center, said the monkeypox outbreak across the U.S. is worse than imagined.

“We’re just as busy, just as stressed out and living in just as much chaos as at the beginning of Covid,” he said.

The Los Angeles LGBT Center has had to shift so much of its staff to respond to the outbreak that it no longer has the capacity for urgent and walk-in care for its patients, Carpenter said. The center is providing monkeypox vaccinations, testing and treatment on top of its normal services, which include primary care, HIV care, sexual health, women’s health and mental health.

“We’ve got people who have nothing to do with this sort of work who have stopped doing their normal jobs and have started working on this response,” Carpenter said.

U.S. health officials designated monkeypox as a national health emergency on Thursday as cases surge and clinics struggle. STD clinics in major cities across the country are serving as the first line of defense in trying to contain the virus in the U.S., offering care and guidance to gay and bisexual men who currently face the greatest threat from the disease.

Clinics struggle

A surge of patients who need vaccines, testing and treatment for the disease as infections rise are putting pressure on a system already strapped for resources after years of underfunding, physicians say.

Monkeypox is spreading primarily through skin-to-skin contact during sex. Since the United Kingdom first alerted the world to the presence of the virus in May, sexual health clinics across the world have been the eyes and ears of national public health systems, identifying unusual symptoms that diverge from the usual description of the disease in medical literature.

Physicians at clinics in Los Angeles and Chicago, major centers of the current outbreak in the U.S., say they are struggling to keep up with the demand for vaccines, testing and treatment from the communities they serve and are in need of financial support to respond to the outbreak.

The U.S. has reported more than 7,000 cases of monkeypox across 48 states, Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The outbreak has spread swiftly since health authorities in Boston confirmed the first U.S. case in May.

Monkeypox is rarely fatal, and no deaths have been reported in the U.S. But some patients suffer pain so excruciating from the rash, which often develops on the genitals or anus, that they require hospitalization.

‘Pain for weeks’

“Unless you potentially experienced pain in these sensitive areas, it’s hard to maybe conceptualize what this is, but this is not something that’s cleared up with some antibiotics in a matter of days. People are living with this pain for weeks” said Dr. Anu Hazra, a physician and infectious disease expert at Howard Brown Health in Chicago.

Though gay and bisexual men are currently at the highest risk, public health officials have repeatedly emphasized that anyone can catch monkeypox through physical contact with someone infected with the virus or via contaminated materials such as towels and bedsheets.

“Monkeypox doesn’t care if you’re gay. It doesn’t care what kind of sex you have,” Hazra said. “Monkeypox only cares if you were in close contact with another person that has monkeypox.”