WASHINGTON — Monkeypox is a new disease that has U.S. officials worried, spurring the Biden administration to declare the disease as a national health emergency.
This came after growing concern over the virus, which has spread to over 6,600 people nationwide, from officials throughout the U.S. government. On Wednesday U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., called for immediate action from the Biden administration to combat the disease in a press conference with disease experts.
Monkeypox is a viral infection that can lead to hospitalization or death, and can commonly cause permanent scarring.
It starts with flu-like symptoms, then a rash around the genitals, hands, feet, chest or face. This rash can turn into painful blisters, which commonly leave permanent scarring. According to the New York state Department of Health, the disease is spread through close physical contact with infected people, direct contact with rashes or sores or respiratory droplets or oral fluids from an infected person. It can also be spread through shared clothing, objects or fabrics that can carry infectious materials.
Viral spread has been primarily identified among communities of men who have sex with men, but spread beyond that community has been recorded and is likely to increase.
“So far, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has reported over 6,000 known cases of monkeypox in the United States, and the World Health Organization has declared the spread a public health emergency of international concern,” said Gillibrand during a press conference Wednesday.
On Thursday, reports that the federal government plans to declare the disease a public health emergency emerged as well.
Monkeypox has existed internationally for years, but the most recent strain that is being spread in the U.S. is behaving more aggressively, spreading faster and more unpredictably than the previous strains.
The New York Department of Health has recorded 1,666 confirmed monkeypox cases in the state as of Aug. 3, making New York the U.S. hotspot for the disease in the U.S. The infections are focused in downstate, with 1,630 cases recorded in New York City as of Thursday.
Columbia and Greene counties in the Capital Region have each recorded one case, as well. Erie County in Western New York has recorded four cases, but the counties with the most confirmed infections are Suffolk with 17 and Westchester with 32.
Two vaccines are available on the U.S. market. One, known as ACAM2000, is more readily available but cannot be used on patients with eczema, other skin conditions, those with weakened immune systems or those who are pregnant.
The other vaccine, JYNNEOS, is less readily available but production is ramping up, with delivery expected in the coming weeks or months. This vaccine can be used on those with skin conditions like eczema, but those interested should consult a health care professional before deciding which vaccine to receive, if either.
On Wednesday, Gillibrand said the disease has the potential to cause real damage, and action needs to be taken immediately to stem the tide of infections.
“We need to do more to ensure those who are affected have access to treatment,” she said. “As we’ve seen in other health crises, we need to act swiftly to mitigate the risk of the disease spreading to a larger population.”
Last week, Gov. Kathy Hochul declared a state of emergency for New York, mobilizing state resources to deliver vaccines and prepare information campaigns. A total of 170,000 monkeypox vaccines have been allocated for New York to distribute, but Gillibrand said more help is needed to establish fair and effective vaccination campaigns across the state, and more states than just New York need to spin up their responses to the disease.
“Nationwide, we are entering into a phase of this outbreak in which cases will most likely multiply, but this supply of vaccines we have on hand to treat this virus may not keep pace with rising demand,” Gillibrand said.
The senator said she is calling for President Joe Biden to employ the Defense Production Act to ramp up monkeypox vaccine and test kit production.
The Defense Production Act allows the executive branch to use federal resources in partnership with private domestic production companies to make items or products required for the national defense. The act has been used to spur production of wartime materials like weapons, but more recently has been employed in pandemic responses. The Defense Production Act was used by former President Donald Trump repeatedly during the COVID-19 pandemic’s early phases to spur production of masks, medical ventilators, treatments and vaccines.
Gillibrand said the American health care system, still battered by the lasting effects of COVID-19, needs all the help it can get to fight what could easily become another nationwide disease.
“We can build on the lessons of COVID-19 and act decisively as we fight against this disease,” she said. “That means addressing staffing shortages and the overburdened health care system.”
Gillibrand was joined by Dr. Jay K. Varma, an expert on disease control and prevention and director of Cornell University’s Center for Pandemic Prevention and Response.
Varma said there has been a tremendous effort to create an effective monkeypox vaccine, but there is a relatively small supply stockpiled at this time.
“Even though the U.S. invested so much in developing this vaccine and stockpiling it, we’re in a terrible position today, which is that the demand for this vaccine far outstrips the supply,” he said.
He said public health departments are struggling after years of pandemic response, and the U.S government needs to step in to provide additional assistance.
Ultimately, Gillibrand said the past two years of pandemic response for COVID-19, and the initial response to the spread of monkeypox has demonstrated a significant need for a restructuring of the American public health system.
She has introduced the Health Force, Resilience Force and Jobs to Fight COVID-19 Act, which would invest in federal, state, county and local public health departments and agencies, and create a standing “central command” for public health and disease prevention.
The command center would bring together aspects of the Department of Defense, Central Intelligence Agency, National Institutes of Health and the Department of Health and Human Services into one single location, focused on preventing pandemics and national epidemics from hitting the U.S.
“I don’t think it’s a criticism of this administration, I think we are just not built for pandemics, we have not created the infrastructure to respond quickly to these kinds of fast-contracting diseases.”
New York’s allocation of monkeypox vaccines is inbound, and will be distributed by local public health departments. Those interested in receiving a vaccine should contact their county’s public health department.