Updated: Some men recount membership offer to get vaxxed quicker at Steamworks

  • by Cynthia Laird, News Editor
  • Wednesday July 13, 2022
Share this Post:
A Berkeley city spokesperson said people do not need to pay for the monkeypox vaccine at the Steamworks Bathhouse. Photo: Jane Philomen Cleland
A Berkeley city spokesperson said people do not need to pay for the monkeypox vaccine at the Steamworks Bathhouse. Photo: Jane Philomen Cleland

Citing "misinformation," a spokesperson for the Berkeley Health Department told the Bay Area Reporter Wednesday that people do not need to pay for the monkeypox vaccine being offered at Steamworks Bathhouse.

But after this article was published, several people contacted the paper to say that some Steamworks staff were apparently offering a single-day membership to go inside and get vaccinated and that line moved quicker.

Scott Davis was one of those waiting in line for eight hours July 13.

"Your article completely missed the point," Davis wrote. "We were offered a single-day membership with locker rental to go inside to get vaccinated. That would be $24. That line moved faster by about 2 hours or more.

"So in effect they were selling a fastpass. I got there 2 hours early at 10:00 a.m. and got my shot at 6 p.m. While someone near me when they came through the line with the offer was done by 3:30 because they paid," Davis added.

He recounted his experience on Twitter.

Davis said someone else's experience was filmed by NBC Bay Area.

"Also this was partly filmed in front of me: 'Robert' was next to me in line and challenged SW staff twice about selling quicker access," Davis wrote.

Steamworks general manager Zose Newell told NBC Bay Area that there would be one line at future vaccine clinics.

Matthai Chakko, the Berkeley spokesperson, said that the city's goal is to get higher risk populations vaccinated and that Steamworks has been "very helpful" in providing the venue for the Wednesday vaccine clinics that run through August 3 and start at noon.

"Today, 500 people got vaccinated," Chakko said. "The vaccine is available to everybody, patron or not."

Chakko explained that Steamworks is just providing the space; the vaccine comes from the state through a contractor.

Chakko added that he has spoken with Steamworks leadership and that Larry Hickey, CEO of Steamworks Berkeley, was on site talking with people as they waited in line.

"You do not have to be a member of Steamworks to get the vaccine," Chakko said. "Steamworks leadership is clear on that; everybody's on the same page. I'm not aware of anything intentional on the part of Steamworks.

"That narrative is gaining some traction and I don't want to stigmatize Steamworks in any way," Chakko added. "We're trying to make sure nobody has that perception."

Walter Cheng was another person who was at Steamworks Wednesday.

"I got in line for the vaccine around 10:30 am yesterday," Cheng wrote in an email. "Like many have said, 2 different Steamworks employees did announce that people could purchase entrance to the club and that 'might get you a vaccine faster' (in their words).

"However, additionally, there was an employee giving out tickets to people waiting in line for vaccine spots," Cheng added. "He received a phone call right as he was giving tickets near me. I'm not sure exactly who he was speaking with but I believe it was to other Steamworks staff. In effect, he stated that the vaccines were obtained by Steamworks and that they had the right to distribute them how they wanted. The person stated that the obtained vaccines were meant for members and implied that Steamworks was being generous to give it to other people in the community."

Jose Luis Gandara also tweeted his experience after the B.A.R. article was published. "At ~11:15, SW worker told ppl in line they were vaxxing folks inside, explicitly mentioned shorter wait, and shared info ab costs. Deliberate profiteering," Gandara tweeted.

Another man waiting in line shared his observations.

Joe Greaves, the political action chair for the East Bay Stonewall Democratic Club, was himself waiting in line when the B.A.R. contacted him in the late afternoon. He said there were two lines at the gay bathhouse: one for those in line as customers, and another line for those who were not looking to spend time at the facility.

"They divided the tickets up," Greaves said, adding that while he didn't think anyone had to pay for a vaccine, there was a perception of people who "jumped the line." However, Greaves said the CEO was there and did speak with him.

"They're doing a good job managing the situation," Greaves said.

Chakko said that the city's goal is to get as many higher risk people vaccinated as possible with the limited vaccine available.

As the B.A.R. has been reporting, while anyone can get monkeypox through close personal contact, the vast majority of cases in the current outbreak have been men who have sex with men.

The monkeypox virus spreads through close personal contact, including skin-to-skin contact, kissing, and respiratory droplets at close range, but it is not transmitted through the air over longer distances like the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. It is not yet known whether monkeypox is transmitted in semen, but it does spread through contact with sores during sex.

Related to smallpox but less severe, monkeypox causes flu-like symptoms, swollen lymph nodes, and a rash. The sores, which may resemble common sexually transmitted infections such as herpes or syphilis, can appear anywhere on the body, including the throat, genitals, and anal area. Most people recover without treatment after a few weeks, but the sores can cause scars and some patients have reported severe pain.

The Jynneos vaccine, which involves two injections given a month apart, is currently in short supply. San Francisco health officials announced July 13 that they're running out.

Chakko said that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has non-pharmaceutical strategies that people can use as they wait for more vaccines to become available. Those include avoiding skin-to-skin contact with someone who may have a rash that looks like monkeypox and not kissing or having sex with someone who has monkeypox.

As the B.A.R. reported, in an email message dated July 5, Steamworks management said the Berkeley Department of Public Health informed them that "over the past month, some of our members have been either a confirmed or a probable case of monkeypox." These members visited the bathhouse May 27-29, June 3-4, June 10, and June 17.

No one answered the phone at Steamworks when the B.A.R. called seeking comment from Hickey.

Updated 7/14/22: This article has been updated to include comments from other people waiting in line that recounted some Steamworks staff offering quicker access to the vaccine if they paid for a single-day membership and locker rental.

Help keep the Bay Area Reporter going in these tough times. To support local, independent, LGBTQ journalism, consider becoming a BAR member.