WASHINGTON — U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra announced Thursday a public health emergency for the monkeypox virus, which means the federal government can more quickly assist states with distributing vaccines and conducting testing and public health campaigns.
“We’re prepared to take our response to the next level in addressing this virus, and we urge every American to take monkeypox seriously and to take responsibility to help us tackle this,” Becerra said during a call with reporters.
More than 6,600 monkeypox cases have been reported in the United States, according to the latest Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data. The hardest-hit states are New York, California, Illinois, Florida, Georgia and Texas.
There are no reported deaths, but symptoms can last for weeks and can include muscle aches, a painful rash, respiratory symptoms and chills, among other things. The virus is most often spread through direct contact, including personal, skin-to-skin contact.
New York, California and Illinois within the last week have declared a state of emergency due to the virus. But in Florida, Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis shut down the idea of declaring a state of emergency for the Sunshine State, even as cases there have climbed to 525, the Florida Phoenix reported.
The World Health Organization has given its highest alert level to monkeypox, declaring it a public health emergency of international concern.
Becerra said the administration has delivered more than 600,000 vaccines by partnering with local, state and tribal governments.
States are limited in their access to the vaccine, which requires a two-dose regime, because the federal government can only purchase the vaccine from one company in Denmark.
Becerra said the administration has the capacity to administer 80,000 tests per week, and for those who need treatment, there are 14,000 treatments of an antiviral called tecovirimat, or TPOXX, “that has been shown to help those who have monkeypox.”
HHS in mid-July announced it purchased another 2.5 million doses of Bavarian Nordic’s JYNNEOS vaccine to respond to the monkeypox outbreak.
Biden administration officials on the call included Robert Fenton, the White House national monkeypox response coordinator; Demetre Daskalakis, the White House national monkeypox response deputy coordinator; Rochelle Walensky, CDC director; Robert Califf, Food and Drug Administration commissioner; and Dawn O’Connell, assistant secretary for preparedness and response at HHS.
Fenton said across the federal government, it’s an “all hands on deck response.”
“We are going to apply lessons learned from the battles we’ve fought, whether it be from the wildfires to COVID responses or to measles,” Fenton said.
“We plan to be responsive leaders, focusing on tackling this and today, the actions we are announcing will allow us … to explore additional strategies to get vaccines and will allow us to get more data from jurisdictions, so we can effectively track and attack this outbreak.”
Daskalakis, who helped lead the response to New York City’s measles outbreak and has led HIV and STD health prevention programs, said that the administration is engaging “with the LGBTQI+ community where we saw this virus spreading with the goal of sharing the critical information around the symptoms of monkeypox and best practices to stop its spread.”
“While we know that monkeypox is not exclusively a sexually transmitted virus, we also recognized early on that this virus is spreading more rapidly and differently than you’ve seen in prior outbreaks,” Daskalakis said. “I think that from the LGBTQ perspective, this is a very clear statement of the value of the lives of people who are in the LGBTQ community.”
Congress has also been slow to hold any hearings, or given much attention to monkeypox, which is predominantly affecting the LGBTQ community but can be spread by anyone who is infected.
Following the announcement from HHS, Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney, chairwoman of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform, praised the decision, adding that she sent a letter to Becerra in late July urging him to declare a public health emergency.
“This critical step will allow the Biden Administration to build on the progress it has already made to expand the availability of vaccines, testing, and treatment nationwide,” she said in a statement, adding that she will “continue to push the Administration to use every tool at its disposal to mitigate the threat monkeypox poses to our nation’s public health and ensure testing, vaccines, and treatment are available to those who need it.”